Ultrasound In Dogs

Find out how and why your vet uses ultrasound as a diagnostic tool.

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An ultrasound is a non-invasive procedure used to evaluate a dog's internal organs. Photo Courtesy of the American Veterinary Medical Association

More and more veterinary clinics are offering ultrasound as a relatively easy, safe and wonderful diagnostic tool for your dog.

Ultrasounds, also called sonograms, use high frequency sound waves to form a picture of the soft tissues in your pet’s body. The diagnostic images are then used by your veterinarian to help figure out what is wrong with your pet, or very commonly, to help in pregnancy management. Basically, it allows your veterinarian to look inside you pet’s body without having to do surgery.

What Ultrasounds Are Used For

Ultrasound exams are considered to be very safe and may be performed for many reasons. Ultrasound is best for things like liver and kidney evaluations as well as pregnancies. It is not ideal for bones, and ultrasound waves do not work well in parts of the body where air pockets can block sound waves from passing through the body. Ultrasounds offer different information than radiographs (X-rays), but the two may provide complementary information.

Your veterinary may recommend an ultrasound for any of the following:

1. Pregnancy Evaluations

Consider how pregnant women have multiple ultrasound evaluations during their pregnancies. Pregnancy evaluations are done in pets as well.

It is important to note that while ultrasound is excellent for confirming if a female dog is or isn’t pregnant, it is not always reliable on exact numbers of puppies present. If anything, ultrasounds tend to underestimate the number of puppies. For that, a radiograph (X-ray) close to whelping is ideal to get more accurate numbers. Most pregnancy checks are done at 28 to 35 days. A bonus to ultrasound checks is that the puppies themselves can be monitored, too.

2. Detecting Prostate Problems

Ultrasound evaluations can be helpful to rule in or out prostate problems in your male dog, or help to find a retained testicle.

3. Liver, Kidney And Stomach Evaluations

An ultrasound might be used to look at your dog’s kidneys or liver. Chronic stomach and intestinal upsets may benefit from ultrasound as a diagnostic tool. For an exact diagnosis, bloodwork or other diagnostics may also be required.

4. Cancer Screenings

Cancer screenings and staging can be done via ultrasound in many cases, although the images are not as detailed as an MRI scan. Ultrasound may also be used to guide a biopsy — ensuring that the important areas are sampled.

5. Cardiac Health Evaluations

Special ultrasounds are sometimes used to evaluate cardiac health. If your dog has a heart murmur, you may be referred to a veterinary cardiologist for an “echo” or echocardiography exam with a Doppler ultrasound. Similar to a “regular” ultrasound, no anesthesia is required and your dog will walk away after the procedure.

How Ultrasounds Are Performed

From your dog’s point of view, ultrasounds are easy. Most dogs do not need any sedation and are simply restrained with some ear rubbing and sweet talking.

During the procedure, your veterinarian will move a handheld probe around the area that needs to be examined. There is some pressure, but it is not painful. I can say that from personal experience — I have two children and had multiple ultrasounds during my pregnancies! Some dogs do not like the gel, which is put down to provide an air tight connection between the probe and your dog’s skin. It helps if the gel is warmed a bit (again, personal experience speaking).

Depending on the area being checked, your dog may lie on his side or upside down. Occasionally an ultrasound may be done with the dog standing. How long your pet will have to stay fairly still depends on what is being evaluated and how easy it is to check the area.

Shaving is important if your dog has a lot of hair over the area to be examined. You don’t want air trapped in the fur between the probe and your dog’s skin. Ultrasound doesn’t work well through air. But don’t worry — hair grows back! If it is winter, you may need a jacket or sweater for your dog when he goes outside for a couple of weeks.

Once the area(s) has been looked at (the images are often stored in a computer), your dog can hop up and will be back to normal, minus some hair. No recovery time at all!

Veterinarian Or Specialist: Who Performs Ultrasound Exams?

Many clinics offer some ultrasound evaluations, while others have specialists come in to do the ultrasounds and evaluate the results.

Whether or not your regular veterinarian does the ultrasound or refers you to specialist can depend on the problem being assessed.

For pregnancy confirmation, many clinics do their own evaluations. Our Belgian Tervuren, Queezle, had no problem with her ultrasounds done by a colleague who does a fair number of pregnancy evaluations. Queezle lied down when told, got shaved a touch, was positioned carefully by a veterinary technician, and in no time we had a pregnancy confirmation! Queezle even got a couple of cookies post workup.

For more complicated problems, a specialist, such as a board-certified veterinary radiologist, is the way to go. When my elderly Corgi, Susan, had a liver problem, I got her to a radiologist for an ultrasound. The ultrasound confirmed the problem that bloodwork had suggested, and we were able to make a diagnostic plan to turn her illness around.

The critical part of the ultrasound is not so much taking the films or setting up for the procedure. It is the experience of the veterinarian doing the evaluation. As I mentioned above, many veterinarians feel comfortable doing pregnancy checks. Those same veterinarians may refer you to a specialist if your dog needs cancer diagnosis or staging. Board certified radiologists look at ultrasounds all day, so their eye is sharp. Literally, slight changes in “shades of gray” can have meaning for your dog’s health.

Ultrasound Cost

The cost of ultrasounds varies greatly depending on the study needed, where you live and the evaluator. Ultrasound equipment is quite expensive, and each clinic that has ultrasound capability has to pay for that equipment themselves. Sometimes clinics send questionable ultrasounds out to specialists for a second opinion, which is an extra cost. A quick ultrasound to determine pregnancy or quickly scan for a bladder stone in a cooperative patient might be as low as $50 to $100, but generally you can expect to pay $300 to $500 for a diagnostic ultrasound.

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Dogs · Health and Care