, Newburyport, MA

August 16, 2013

Paw Prints: Seeing your pet from the inside out

Paw Prints, Heidi Bassler

---- — The sparkling eyes, the wispy whiskers, the cute ears and the happy grin. You surely have images of your pet captured on photographs, hanging on your wall or tucked in your purse. Don’t you love to gaze at those pictures? Looking from the outside in, you know what makes your Fido or Fluffy tick. You can almost see into your pet’s heart.

What if we really do have to see into your pet’s heart? What if something is wrong, like a heart murmur or difficulty breathing or exercising? What if something else is sick inside your pet’s body, something that blood and urine tests cannot diagnose? What’s the next step to help your pet?

Pet owners often think that lab tests will give the much-needed answers to diagnose their sick pet. In some cases, blood and urine tests tell us what we need to know. This is important, because an accurate diagnosis opens the door to the best treatment options.

Sometimes, though, we literally have to look inside our patients to obtain information that will guide the treatment plan for our little furry friends. We do this through a process called imaging.

Diagnostic imaging means just what it implies. It’s a noninvasive way to look inside our patients. Diagnostic imaging includes radiographs, ultrasound, CT scan and MRI.

Radiographs, or “X-rays,” are the most common form of imaging and are available at all veterinary hospitals. Radiographs use radiation to form shadow-like pictures.

Traditional radiographs produce pictures on large films. However, progressive veterinary hospitals are following the human hospital lead and are replacing their old-fashioned film with computerized images. These digital pictures are more diagnostic because they show more detail of structures inside the patient. As with any digital photography, computer programs allow image enhancement, enlargement of certain areas and contrast change. As an added bonus, digital images can be sent electronically to radiology specialists for quick review. That’s a big plus for Fido, Fluffy and you.

Dental radiographs are a special kind of X-ray that are used only for imaging tiny body parts such as tooth roots. Dental radiographs diagnose tooth abscesses, fractured roots and other problems such as cavities. Just as your dentist takes radiographs periodically to check your oral health, every pet deserves this during his periodic oral exam, too. Full-body X-ray equipment should not be used to take dental radiographs. Make sure your veterinarian has what is needed for proper dental radiographs before your pet undergoes this procedure.

Sometimes, radiographs are not the best way to look inside your pet. Depending on what is making him sick, another imaging mode may be recommended.

Ultrasound is becoming increasingly common in the veterinary setting. It also provides a means of looking inside your pet, without doing surgery or anesthesia.

One of the beauties of ultrasound is that is carries no risk to the patient. There is no radiation, no scalpel and no sedation.

The ultrasound procedure is relaxing and may take 30 to 60 minutes. Fido or Fluffy rests on a padded table, while an ultrasound probe massages his belly and obtains images inside the abdomen. This movie is displayed on a screen and is viewed in real time.

An echocardiogram is an ultrasound of the heart. This is the preferred imaging for pets with suspected heart disease because it allows your veterinary team to look inside the heart and measure the heart chambers, heart walls and valves for abnormalities.

It is important to remember that ultrasound is only as good as the equipment being used and the expertise of the ultrasonographer. Older equipment, or images interpreted by someone with limited experience, can profoundly affect the quality and accuracy of the ultrasound report. If your sick pet needs an ultrasound, be sure to inquire about the qualifications of the person performing the procedure. Your safest bet is to request a board-certified veterinary radiologist or a board-certified veterinary internal medicine specialist. These are veterinarians who have proven their expertise in ultrasound.

Today, both digital radiographs and ultrasound are typically offered in up-to-date primary care veterinary facilities. Sometimes, though, this isn’t enough, and you may be sent to a referral hospital for advanced imaging with a specialist team.

CT scan and MRI are available at these big referral centers. They can provide a way to look inside the brain and spinal cord for tumors, or deep inside the middle ear for chronic infection. CT scan and MRI require very specialized and costly equipment that is not available in general practice. These diagnostic images can provide the answers to help make your pet better.

You love your pet from outside in and from inside out. Diagnostic imaging offers fantastic tools to help keep your Fido and Fluffy in picture-perfect health.


Dr. Heidi Bassler practices at Bassler Veterinary Hospital ( She hosts a radio show, “Your Pet’s Health,” every Sunday morning at 8:30 on AM-1450 WNBP. Do you have questions for Dr. Bassler? Send them to