If your veterinarian recommends an ultrasound for your dog or cat, you probably have questions.
For example, you might wonder:
- What is an ultrasound again?
- Why would my pet need one?
- What types of risks are associated with pet ultrasounds?
- Do you need to use anesthesia to sedate my pet?
- What can I expect after my pet’s ultrasound?
- Is this covered under my pet insurance policy?
Many of us associate ultrasounds with pregnancy. After all, ultrasounds (ultrasonography) are a standard way doctors evaluate a fetus’ health. However, many other types of medical procedures utilize them as well.
For example, if your pet shows signs of pain or internal swelling, your veterinarian might recommend an ultrasound to investigate.
Per Dr. Jamie Whittenburg (DVM) of Kingsgate Animal Hospital in Texas and SeniorTailWaggers.com, it all depends on the symptoms your pet is presenting. “…Most pets should first receive what we call a ‘minimum database.’ This workup includes a thorough physical exam with history from the pet parent, a complete blood count (CBC), a chemistry panel (CMP), and a urinalysis (UA).”
If this “minimum database” doesn’t provide sufficient insight into your pet’s health, the next step could be an ultrasound.
What Does an Ultrasound Do and Is It Safe?
Ultrasounds are safe (radiation-free) and non-invasive. An ultrasound uses a diagnostic tool and high-frequency sound waves to show images within the body. These images appear on a screen in front of you (and the veterinarian) for easy viewing.
Here’s what you can expect:
- A veterinarian or vet tech will shave some of your pet’s fur and apply an ultrasound gel to the skin.
- They’ll move a wand with a rollerball around on the gel-covered portion of the body.
- Using a screen, they’ll observe internal images and see if they can find a cause for your pet’s illness.
For example, an ultrasound will show blockages. If your dog swallowed a spoon, an ultrasound would show the spoon and where it is within your dog’s body. It’ll also indicate the next steps. Will the spoon come out on its own, or is it a dangerous blockage that requires surgery?
These are the kinds of questions an ultrasound can answer.
When Do Veterinarians Recommend Ultrasounds?
Typically, there are three reasons people take their pets to the veterinarian.
- Routine checkup
- Pet seems “off.”
It’s the last two reasons that often result in an ultrasound.
Dr. Whittenburg says, “In my practice, the most common use for ultrasonography is in cancer diagnosis. For example, this week, I saw a 12-year-old cat that presented with weight loss and just “seeming off,” according to her owner. The cat’s physical exam revealed a thin cat, but nothing remarkable.”
First, she checks bloodwork and other routine sources.
If those don’t lead to a diagnosis, then an ultrasound may be the next logical step. Based on your pet’s symptoms and minimum database, your veterinarian might recommend an ultrasound to check your pet’s internal health.
Your veterinarian may also want to look at your pet’s heart if they suspect cardiac disease. If your cat has a swollen abdomen, that could be a sign of a cancerous mass. If you have a dog prone to swallowing foreign objects, an ultrasound will show what the object is and if it poses a danger.
Essentially, ultrasounds inform your veterinarian about the source of the issue so they can recommend the next steps.
Common Uses of Ultrasounds in Pets
As you can see from Dr. Whittenburg’s example, many veterinarians use ultrasound to determine the cause of unusual behavior. When your pet doesn’t seem their self, but there’s no apparent reason, an ultrasound can help with the diagnosis.
Besides cancer, ultrasounds can help detect:
- Heart disease
- Internal injury
- Ligament and tendon injury
- Foreign objects
- Other organ problems
What Do Pet Ultrasounds Cost and Are They Covered by Insurance?
Dog and cat ultrasounds usually run $300 – $500. The actual fee depends on factors like your location, the facility, and your veterinarian. In some cases, your veterinarian may recommend a different doctor handle the ultrasound procedure (if they don’t perform the service themselves).
As for whether it’s covered by pet insurance, that’s up to your specific policy.
How to Prepare for Your Pet’s Ultrasound
When your veterinarian recommends an ultrasound, they’ll explain why. They’ll tell you what they’re looking for, and you can ask questions to help you choose your course of action.
In some cases, your veterinarian may schedule your pet’s ultrasound with another doctor. They may ask you to fast your pet beforehand. Undigested food in the gastrointestinal tract can block visibility.
Once the ultrasound is complete, your veterinarian can share their diagnosis and make recommendations. For example, as Dr. Whittenburg shared, discovering the cat had cancer meant the pet parents could start treatment. Otherwise, their kitty could be in pain and suffering in silence.
In summary, a pet ultrasound is a helpful diagnostic tool to determine the source of your pet’s discomfort. It’s safe, effective, and gives your doctor the information they need to make recommendations for the next steps.
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