advances in diagnostics: dr. kim smyth explains the echocardiogram

Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Jan 30 2014

Over the last few decades, veterinary medicine has advanced greatly. Not only do we have access to more advanced diagnostic tests (like MRIs and CT scans), but as a profession, we are smarter. This is due, in part, to veterinarians who continue their educations after veterinary school, becoming board certified in specialized fields such as dermatology, neurology, ophthalmology, internal medicine, and cardiology.

Most of the time, illnesses that affect your dog or cat can be handled by your regular veterinarian. But sometimes, even your vet will need a helping hand. That’s where being able to refer your pet to someone who specializes in the field really benefits everyone.

Cardiologists are perfect examples of this. Heart disease is not uncommon in pets—both dogs and cats can be affected. Your regular veterinarian can detect heart disease by hearing a heart murmur or arrhythmia, or by seeing an enlarged heart on an x-ray, but she may need to refer your pet to a cardiologist to determine what is causing the heart trouble.

Echocardiograms are an essential diagnostic test for pets with heart disease, but while not all general practitioners feel comfortable performing them, all cardiologists do. If your pet has heart disease and your regular veterinarian is unable to perform an echocardiogram, your pet will likely be referred elsewhere for the test.

Echocardiograms are ultrasounds that provide detailed images of the beating heart. Echocardiograms also provide us with images of the large blood vessels surrounding the heart. If you recall the blog about ultrasounds, you remember that they are a completely painless, non-invasive way to visualize internal organs, and in this case, the focus is on the heart.

Being able to visualize the heart enables us to classify your pet’s heart disease. Are the heart valves leaky? Are the heart chambers enlarged, or are the walls of the heart thickened? Actually seeing the heart allows us to diagnose:

Dilated cardiomyopathy

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy

Congenital heart defects, such as patent ductus arteriosis


Furthermore, Doppler color-flow can show blood flow, allowing us to see leaky heart valves or abnormal movement of blood between the left and right sides of the heart.

Echocardiograms are painless. Most pets even do well without sedation. Pets simply lie on a padded table while the ultrasound is performed. Because hair impedes the ultrasound waves, most pets will need to have their chests shaved, but this is a small price to pay. In fact, I haven’t met a pet who has minded yet!

Knowing what is going on with your pet’s heart allows us to treat his heart disease the best way that we can. Most heart diseases are irreversible, so minimizing ongoing damage and managing clinical signs effectively goes a long way towards providing an excellent quality of life.