What does an ultrasound show me that X-rays don’t? This is something we are asked almost daily when speaking with clients about diagnostics on their sick pets.
X-rays are a great baseline when your pet is ill. We can see the internal organs and their contours, look for changes in the lungs that you may see from heart failure or cancer. We can see bladder or kidney stones and look for signs of intestinal obstructions. We can even look at bone to check for arthritis and growing pains. So why an ultrasound if we can see all that?
An ultrasound lets us look at the actual structure of an organ.
When looking at the heart, we can actually watch it beat and measure how well the heart muscles contract, how efficiently they are working. We can see the heart valves opening and closing, look for any signs of regurgitation, or leaky valves. If there is fluid in the chest or abdomen, we use the ultrasound to help us aspirate a sample for further evaluation, just as we can use it to aspirate or biopsy organs like the liver or kidneys if need be.
In the abdomen, we often utilize the ultrasound to find the cause of elevated liver enzymes or low protein or check the kidneys for cysts or changes not evident on radiographs. And we love to use it to obtain a sterile urine sample on dogs and cats for the best chance at properly diagnosing a bladder infection or cystitis versus a mass in the bladder.
When we perform an abdominal ultrasound, we always look at everything, not just the affected organ. Other tissues can be affected by disease. We don’t want to miss anything if we can help it. Hyperadrenocortisism or Cushing’s disease is one of those instances where liver enzymes are elevated because the adrenal gland/s are overproducing corticosteroids. These glands will be either bilaterally or unilaterally enlarged depending on where the problem lies and can help determine further testing or treatment options.
So why am I going into great detail as to the benefits of ultrasound? Well, Dr. Doug Mader and I just returned from a trip to Lima, Peru. We were at the oldest university in North and South America teaching ultrasound to about 30 small-animal veterinarians.
Ultrasound has just started to become affordable for practitioners there in the past five years, and only in the larger cities where there is a higher concentration of small animals kept as pets. It is taught in veterinary school only as a tool in large animal reproduction, so exposure is very limited. To see the excitement on the practitioners’ faces when finally understanding how to navigate through an abdominal ultrasound was uplifting to say the least.
It also makes you realize how fortunate our veterinary students are to learn the use of this versatile tool in veterinary school so they can more accurately diagnose a disease, especially in this day and age, where pets are family in the truest sense of the word.