Why Does My Vet Want an Abdominal Ultrasound?

Whether searching for a missing toy or getting a closer look at what might be a problem area, your vet may suggest an abdominal ultrasound for your pet.

abdominal-ultrasound
Ultrasounds provide a safe look inside your pet. By: Jenny Poole

When pets are in pain, they can’t tell us what’s wrong.

You check pet food recalls, make sure the neighbor’s cat is still alive, check to see if your favorite shoes are intact and ensure that you really did put away the kitchen twine after its last use.

Whether your pet swallowed something or is still feeling unwell, an ultrasound can help determine the culprit.

What Is an Ultrasound?

Ultrasound is a form of imaging that allows us to look inside your pet’s body without surgery. It is a completely noninvasive technique. The ultrasound machine sends sound waves into your pet’s body, listens for the echoes, and the echoes form a picture of what’s going on inside your pet.

Ultrasounds can give us information about organs in the abdomen, the chest and heart, and the eye, for example. This article will zero in on abdominal ultrasounds.

Why Your Vet Wants an Abdominal Ultrasound

Your vet may suggest an ultrasound of the abdomen for many reasons:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Lack of appetite (anorexia)
  • Fluid detected in the abdomen
  • A mass or abnormality found during a physical
  • Unexplained vomiting or diarrhea
  • Urogenital problems
  • Abnormal bloodwork or X-rays
  • ADR (ain’t doin’ right)

Ultrasound allows us to look at the size and texture of organs in a three-dimensional way. An ultrasound can show abnormalities on the surface of organs as well as changes within those organs. This information can be invaluable in deciding:

  1. To do surgery or not
  2. To do biopsies
  3. To do more specific blood tests
  4. To get helpful information prior to surgery

What to Expect if Your Pet Has an Ultrasound

If you have had an ultrasound done on yourself, you know how straightforward it is. The wand is pressed over your body, and pictures show up on a monitor. The only difference for an animal is that the fur needs to be clipped away a bit. Usually, the entire abdomen can be looked at in a 15- to 30-minute span.

In my hospital, you can be with your pet if you choose. There is no need for sedation unless Mr. Spock shows uncharacteristic nervousness or Klingon tendencies. Spock gets to have lots of love and Vulcan ear rubs while lying on his side as we take a look at all his organs. A very cantankerous kitty may need some IV sedation. If biopsies are to be taken, this may require anesthesia.

This video shows the steps of an ultrasound and the images it produces:

How Much Are We Talking About?

The cost of an ultrasound varies. A ballpark estimate, from Wrigley to Fenway, is $250 to $500. Biopsies, fine needle aspirates, anesthesia or IV fluids would all be additional if indicated.

If your vet feels strongly about recommending an ultrasound, I believe this can be money well spent. With the information gained, we often can make a much better decision about how to proceed, saving you money in the long run or making sure continual expenses are warranted.

Common Ultrasound Diagnoses

1. Masses in the abdomen. Say your vet palpates a growth or abnormality in the abdomen, or X-rays show a possible mass. An ultrasound can often tell you what organs are affected and if surgery is the right option.

Before general use of ultrasound, we did many more exploratory surgeries with much less information about what we were going to find. Today, an ultrasound before surgery can give your pet the best chance of survival or prevent that pet from having surgery at all.

2. Bladder and kidneys. Ultrasounds help us to look inside the bladder, the kidneys, the prostate or uterus. If your pet is having problems urinating, recurrent infections or bloodwork shows kidney problems or infection, an ultrasound can be invaluable.

Ultrasound makes the diagnosis of a bladder tumor, for example, much easier. An ultrasound can show us if your furhead has a tumor, where it is located in the bladder, and if surgery carries a fair to good prognosis.

3. Adrenal glands. You have probably heard a bunch about Cushing’s disease (hyperadrenocorticism) in older dogs and how frustrating it can be to diagnose and treat. Ultrasound lets us look at the small adrenal glands, difficult to see on plain X-rays, and gives us another piece of the Cushing’s puzzle.

There are many other things discovered on an abdominal ultrasound, but my take-home message is simple. If your vet thinks an ultrasound is warranted, it can save you time and money in the long run, get you a quicker diagnosis, and either save your fur bundle from unnecessary surgery or get him lifesaving surgery more quickly, and in the right facility.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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