The Importance of Ultrasound for Pets

By: David Heflin, DVM

TVMA Member
McAllen, TX

Published February 2015

If your veterinarian has recommended an ultrasound when assessing your pet’s health, you may find yourself wondering what an ultrasound does and how it is helpful. Ultrasound examinations are a useful tool in veterinary medicine that can be used for accurately diagnosing many pet health issues.

How Does Ultrasound Work?

Ultrasound machines send sound waves into the body that are reflected back to a probe and interpreted by a computer, much like the echo that you hear when you yell out in a canyon. The sound waves bounce back at different strengths depending on the density of the tissue encountered. The computer can then create an image on a video monitor that can be analyzed for abnormalities. The ultrasound is non-invasive, meaning it doesn’t enter the body, and is pain-free. There are no known long-term health risks associated with exposure to ultrasound, making it a very safe method for imaging the body.

When Does a Veterinarian Use Ultrasound?

Ultrasound is best-suited for tissues or organs that are fluid-filled. The liver, gallbladder, kidneys, adrenal glands, spleen, urinary bladder, pancreas, lymph nodes and blood vessels of the abdomen can be readily imaged. The stomach wall and intestinal walls can also be evaluated, but their internal contents cannot be easily identified. Ultrasound can also be used to look at the heart and can even be used to measure the walls of the heart and to look at individual heart valves. Radiographs (X-rays) are also used to evaluate the abdomen and chest, but they provide a different type of diagnostic information and are often used in a complementary manner. In many cases, in order to gather the most information, both tests will be recommended. For example, a radiograph can tell the size and shape of the organs, but an ultrasound can see the texture and structures within the organs.

Ultrasound is one of the most valuable tools in your veterinarian’s armamentariumThe medicines, equipment and techniques available to a medical practitioner. when assessing a patient with an enlarged or painful abdomen or with suspicious changes in routine lab tests. Pancreatitis, a common and often life-threatening disease, can often be confirmed, and sometimes its severity can be determined by ultrasound. Cancer of the spleen can often be detected early enough to allow surgical removal before metastasis (spread to other organs) occurs. Bladder stoneshard masses of minerals in bladder (even some that do not show up on radiographs) can be found.

Other conditions that are often recognized with ultrasound include infected gallbladders, enlarged adrenal glands, kidneys damaged by toxins such as antifreeze, diffuse liver disease, lymphoma and other intestinal cancers, enlarged lymph nodes and reproductive tract abnormalities such as an infected uterus or inflamed prostate gland. Sometimes the abdomen is swollen because of an accumulation of fluid around the abdominal organs; fluid diminishes the capability of radiographs, but ultrasound is excellent in determining whether the cause is a poorly functioning heart or disease in the abdominal organs. Ultrasound is also often used on an emergency basis after trauma to look for fluid accumulations and to be able to monitor the extent or progression of abdominal bleeding.

Ultrasound-guided biopsies are commonly used as a minimally invasive way to get accurate samples of diseased organs while avoiding blood vessels and other fragile structures. Often these biopsies prevent the need for surgery to diagnose an animal’s condition.

Needless to say, ultrasound has become a very important part of keeping our pets healthy. With the development of newer equipment and new techniques, more and more detailed information can be obtained about a pet’s health to easily and accurately detect previously hidden disease.

David Heflin, DVM works at Mission Veterinary Hospital in Mission, Texas. Dr. Heflin lives in McAllen, Texas.