advances in diagnostics: dr. kim smyth explains ultrasounds for pets
When people find out that I’m a veterinarian, the conversation usually goes one of three ways:
1. The person comments that they (or their child) wanted (or wants) to be a veterinarian.
2. The person begins to ask me medical questions about their pet.
3. The person comments on what a difficult job it must be, because pets can’t tell me what is wrong with them.
I like the third conversation the best because it opens up a discussion about how we diagnose pets, who often present with non-specific signs, such as decreased appetite. Sometimes, the symptoms are even less obvious; astute owners will bring in a pet because “she’s just not herself.”
Short of a crystal ball, veterinarians are left to piece together clues we get from a thorough physical exam and other diagnostics such as blood work and x-rays. When we can’t get a definitive diagnosis that way, we often rely on even more diagnostics. Once such “next step” test is an ultrasound, which is the topic of today’s blog (even if it did take half a page to get to it!).
Ultrasounds, otherwise known as sonograms, are a wonderful tool in our arsenal. They are non-invasive and non-painful, so anesthesia is not required. Sometimes we need to use a little bit of sedation for anxious pets, but often, pets will just lie there for their ultrasound exams.
If you’ve ever had an ultrasound (pregnant women, I’m looking at you!), you know that they are completely benign. Unlike x-rays, which use a type of radiation to make an image, ultrasounds use sound waves, which are safe enough for fetuses, you, and your pets! During an ultrasound, sound waves are passed from an ultrasound wand through your pet’s skin and into the target area. There, the waves can either pass through an organ, be absorbed by an organ, or reflect back off of the organ. The result is an image of that organ that is formed on a monitor and viewed by your veterinarian.
Ultrasounds give us a three dimensional image of internal body parts, allowing us to see lesions in organs, dilated heart chambers in pets with heart disease, bladder stones, fetal puppies and kittens, and many other conditions that affect our pets. X-rays can give us some of these answers, too, but they have limitations. When questions arise on x-rays, often ultrasounds will help to answer them, revealing things that x-rays cannot.
Ultrasound machines are expensive, and learning how to use them effectively is difficult. For these reasons, not all clinics can offer the service. If your clinic doesn’t have an ultrasound, or your veterinarian does not feel comfortable performing an ultrasound, you and your pet might be referred to a specialty clinic where a radiologist will perform the test for you. Alternatively, your town may have a traveling ultrasonographer, who can bring her machine to your pet’s regular clinic to perform the ultrasound.
Ultrasounds help us find the problem when your pet is under the weather, and is one of many tests on which we rely in world of veterinary medicine. We are lucky to have it at our disposal, as are our pets, who benefit from a timely diagnosis. The only downside of ultrasounds? Your pet will need to be shaved, as sound waves don’t travel well through thick fur. But a little baldness is worth it for a good diagnosis. And besides, you were probably looking for a justifiable reason to buy your dog or cat an adorable new sweater, right?