Ultrasound and Echocardiography

Medical imaging is a very important part of veterinary medicine–both in preventive medicine as well as in the treatment and management of illness and injury. It is a non-invasive way to better understand what is occurring in a pet’s body so that a proper diagnosis can be rendered and appropriate treatment given. In some cases, medical imaging can detect conditions and situations that may otherwise continue undetected for many months, or even years. It therefore follows that medical imaging, like ultrasounds, are an important part of proper veterinary care.

What Are Ultrasounds?

After x-rays, ultrasounds are the second most common type of medical imaging used in veterinary medicine. Ultrasonic, or sound, waves are directed at the pet’s body, and the echoes of these waves create images that reveal physical structures–much in the same way that sonar works to create images. A couple of key differences between x-rays and ultrasounds is that whereas x-rays involve a very small amount of radiation, ultrasounds use no radiation whatsoever; and whereas x-rays are valuable for detecting issues in bones and joints, ultrasounds are valuable for detecting issues related to the size, structure, appearance and functioning of internal organs.

Ultrasounds can be used to test for pregnancy, and they can also be used to check the eyes, thyroid, liver, spleen, stomach, kidneys, bladder, gall bladder, intestines, lymph nodes and prostate. The veterinarian who is delivering an ultrasound will normally also check the thorax and abdomen in order to ensure these areas are functioning well and free from tumors or unnecessary fluid. Ultrasounds cannot, however, pass through air or bones and therefore are not used to examine organs that contain air, like the lungs, or fractured bones.

What Is Echocardiography?

Your veterinarian may recommend that your pet receive an echocardiogram if they appear to have any symptoms of heart disease, such as cough, difficulty breathing, exercise intolerance or fainting or if a basic veterinary examination has revealed a heart murmur or irregular heart rhythm.

Echocardiography is the specific type of ultrasound imaging that is performed on a pet’s heart. Through non-invasive techniques that would be impossible to achieve with any other diagnostic testing, an echocardiogram provides the veterinarian a detailed view of the pet’s heart valves, heart chamber and heart motion. It can reveal whether there are any issues, such as chamber dilation or tumors, and whether the pet’s heart is functioning well and normally. Heart murmurs and other defects that are caught early on by echocardiography may be successfully treated through medical or surgical intervention, thereby restoring or securing the pet’s good health.

Ultrasound versus X-Rays

Like x-rays, ultrasounds and echocardiography can only be administered by individuals trained in their delivery. These individuals understand how to use ultrasonic sound waves in order to produce viable images of the body’s internal organs that will be useful in diagnosing a condition.

Unlike x-rays, ultrasounds do not expose the patient to even minute amounts of radiation.
X-rays produce basic outlines of internal structures like organs and bones, which can be useful in determining whether there is inflammation, arthritis or fracture. Ultrasounds are typically not the type of medical imaging chosen when bone inflammation, arthritis or fracture is suspected, since they are not able to penetrate bones well and therefore do not produce clear images of bones. On the other hand, ultrasounds give a more detailed and precise view of the internal structure and functioning of an organ, which allows the veterinarian to see even the smallest abnormalities when they exist. They can also give the veterinarian an opportunity to measure the size of organs as well as view the blood flow in various organs, arteries and veins. This is simply not a possibility through the use of x-rays.

Ultrasounds are sometimes used when a veterinarian wishes to obtain biopsies of tissues, because since the images are delivered in real-time, the veterinarian can use them in order to place his needle precisely where he wants to obtain tissue from. This can lead to a more accurate diagnosis, which may eliminate the need for exploratory surgery. X-rays have absolutely no use in this way, since they cannot project accurate images of organ or tissue detail and since they cannot do so in real-time.

What is a CT Scan (Computed Tomography)

Known commonly as CT or CAT scan, computed tomography employs x-rays often in combination with contrast media to create an image of soft and bony tissues inside the body. CT is a more specific method to image the structures that are difficult to see with ultrasound such as lungs, skeletal structures and the gastrointestinal tract. As with ultrasound, CT can detect structural abnormalities of the chest, abdomen, and neck in addition to the spine and head. Like ultrasound, certain abnormalities can also be detected with CT but computed tomography is superior to ultrasound in assessing vasculature both normal and abnormal. Additionally with the combination of CT and contrast media, studies that highlight abnormal shunting of vessels, ectopia in the urinary tract and abnormal contrast uptake can be performed.

What to Expect

Most pets can receive ultrasounds or echocardiography without requiring sedation or anesthesia. A veterinary technician may gently restrain the pet during the scan, which can last for anywhere between fifteen and thirty minutes. However, there are some situations where sedation or anesthesia is wise, for the health, comfort and safety of the pet. Where this is the case, your veterinarian will advise you about what is best for your pet.

Unless a pet’s coat is extremely thick over the area that will be imaged, like the heart, they will probably not need to be shaved in order to receive ultrasonic imaging. The procedure itself is painless, and involves the use of an ultrasonic probe that is gently put into contact with the body.

For more information about ultrasounds and echocardiography, contact us today.