Dogs today are lucky compared to those in the past when it comes to diagnosing and treating health problems. Science has opened a whole new world of diagnostic imaging tests for our canine and feline fur kids that can see far into their bodies. So why then do so many pet parents dread hearing the news that our dog needs an MRI?
When my veterinarian said Sophie needed an MRI to determine which part of her spine was causing her paralysis; I wanted to grab my dog and run out of the office. Hearing the words MRI for the first time was frightening and confusing. I didn’t know what to expect. I think my reaction was pretty typical. Pet parents know the names of tests like ultrasounds, CAT scans and MRIs, but we don’t know how they work or which test is best for our dog’s condition.
I was afraid the MRI was too stressful for Sophie and would make her condition worse. I worried about the cost of the test and wanted assurance it was going to give us a confirmed diagnosis.
If your veterinarian is suggesting an MRI for your paraplegic dog, here is information about how the procedure works, what problems it best diagnoses and how to prepare your dog. But before reading ahead, I found one piece of excellent advice you should keep in mind, “An MRI is used to confirm a diagnosis that cannot be confirmed another way. It should not be scheduled as a way to make an initial diagnosis.”
MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)
MRI’s are the newest diagnostic imaging test and the most expensive. They can cost $2,000 – $4,000. This is in part because the equipment runs as much as $1 million to buy and needs to be stored in a specially housed area to protect the rest of a veterinary hospital from its strong magnetic field. The magnet in an MRI is up to 40,000 times as strong as the earth’s magnetic field. Therefore it can ruin nearby computers and medical equipment.
With that in mind, MRI’s are less harmful to a dog’s body than an x-ray because the scan doesn’t use radiation.
An MRI works by using a magnetic field and radio waves to create images that are clearer and more detailed than other type of diagnostic scan. The procedure can show abnormalities, injuries and diseases of the spine that may not be seen with any other method.
An MRI scan magnetizes the cells of an organ while precise images are taken and sent to a computer that interprets the information. Patients lie flat on a table that slides into a domed-shaped machine that looks like a small tunnel. Your dog’s collar will be removed for the procedure to be sure there is no metal near the equipment. Because of the special nature of the test your dog’s MRI will probably take place at a specialty center or neurological veterinary office and not at your dog’s regular veterinary clinic.
Patients cannot move during an MRI or the pictures will be blurred so dogs must be anesthetized. That means you will not be able to give your dog food or water 12 hours before the scan and your dog will need time in the recovery unit to wake up. Dogs may continue to be groggy and not quite themselves for several hours after an MRI and should be taken directly home to relax.
MRI’s are performed to determine:
- Abnormalities with the spinal anatomy and alignment
- Congenital anomalies of the spine
- Bone, disk, ligament or spinal cord injury after spine trauma
- IVDD – Intervertebral disk disease, degenerated, bulging or herniated disks.
- Spine joint disease
- Compression fractures
- Compression of the spinal cord and nerves
- Inflammation of the spinal cord or nerves
- Infection in the spine
- Tumors in the vertebrae, spinal cord, nerves or the surrounding soft tissues
In case you want more information, here is a description about the other most common “imaging tests” used by veterinarians.
Old school Radiograph/X-rays are still a good test
X-rays were the primary “go to” diagnostic tool in the past and they still reveal a lot of useful information to veterinarians. An x-ray is a black and white two-dimensional image of the inside of the body. X-rays work by passing radiation through a particular area and an image is captured on film, like a photograph. X-rays work best on dense tissue such bones so they are good at determining if a limb is broken or if a hard mass is present, but they are less accurate in seeing problems such as the fluid from a ruptured disc in the spine.
An ultrasound uses sound waves to see inside a dog’s body and like the x-ray, the procedure is painless. A device is pressed along the outside of a suspected diseased organ or injured area and as the sound waves are absorbed, a live moving image is formed that can be seen on the screen of monitor.
Ultrasounds are relatively quick and do not require anesthesia or even sedation in most cases. Depending on the location of the organ being examined, a dog might have to lie in a specially designed u-shaped bed so a veterinarian can get a better look. Your dog will need to have the hair shaved from the area to be evaluated, as hair interferes with the images.
An ultrasound is typically done after other tests like blood work, x-rays and a physical examine indicate a possible problem. The test can see into organs and soft tissue which is not possible on an x-ray. The imaging test can pick up problems such as fluid in the spine and brain or disease in an organ like the liver or heart.
On the flip side, ultrasounds are not good at seeing through air or bone and an x-ray is far better for these purposes. Many times both tests will be scheduled for your pet.
CAT Scan or CT (Computer Axial Tomography) Scan
The CAT or CT scan is the second most expensive imaging test and can cost $1500 – $2000. In this test, your dog lies flat a table that moves through a scanner, which sends x-ray beams through an organ from a variety of angles. Sensors detect the beams and send the signals to a computer that displays an image that looks like a slice of the body. As the table moves slowly through the scanner, a new picture is taken at short intervals, each one a little further back or forward from the previous one. Because the images are taken over a period of time, your dog must be anesthetized in order to keep from moving while going through the scanner.
These images are white, black, and shades of gray. Depending on how dark or light the gray is, a radiologist can see how well tissue absorbs the x-ray beam and identify abnormal tissue. CAT scans are especially helpful for assessing problems in the spinal cord, the lungs and the brain.