Ultrasound is a noninvasive imaging technique that veterinarians use to view your pet’s internal body structures. Ultrasound probes, or transducers, contain special ceramic crystal materials (i.e., piezoelectrics) that produce sound waves that travel through your pet’s body when the probe is placed on your pet’s skin. When these sound waves encounter boundaries between tissues in the beam’s path (e.g., the boundary between fluid and soft tissue or tissue and bone), they are reflected back to the transducer, which generates an electrical signal that is sent to the ultrasound scanner when the transducer receives the echoes. The scanner calculates the transducer-to-tissue boundary distance using the speed of sound and the time of each echo’s return, and uses the information to generate a two-dimensional image of the tissues and organs. These images provide valuable information for diagnosing and directing treatment for numerous diseases and conditions.

Our Southern Arizona Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Clinic team wants to provide information about what an ultrasound exam entails, and when this technology is indicated. We interviewed one of our resident sonographers, Darcie Argentina, LVT, to get a better understanding of the details. 

Question: What specialized training is needed to perform veterinary ultrasound?

Darcie Argentina: “Learning to use an ultrasound machine is uniquely specialized. Medical doctors are not trained in ultrasound during medical school, and must attend a specific and immersive school designed specifically for sonography education. This is necessary because becoming proficient requires extensive time and attention, and more importantly, the technology’s artifact issues can make the diagnostic process dangerous in untrained hands. To preserve the diagnostic process, the medical field has segregated ultrasound into a specialized field where sonographers train, educate, and monitor new sonographers. The veterinary medical industry does not have this same setup, so veterinary professionals must understand the training needs, respect the inherent artifact problems, and constantly seek skill evaluations.

“Two companies provide extremely effective immersive training and a network of professionals as mentors. Antech’s SOUND Academy of Imaging and W.A.V.E (We Are Veterinary Education), an independent educator, provide excellent base knowledge for ultrasound education. After completing one of these courses, the veterinary professional must continue practicing and attending continuing education (CE) courses at least yearly. If you practice every day, you can become proficient in scanning and be able to provide a comprehensive ultrasound exam for a radiologist to review in about two to three years. The less you practice, the longer this process will take. Another consideration is the isolation of a sonographer in the veterinary industry. A sonographer is generally the only person in the clinic or hospital who has training and knows how to ultrasound, and this isolation can cause a delusion of skill, since you cannot make comparisons. Therefore, continued skill checking, which can easily be accomplished by attending yearly CE courses, is essential for sonographers.”

Q: How is veterinary ultrasound used to help pets?

DA: “The ultrasound is an extremely effective diagnostic tool that helps diagnose disease-causing illnesses or other conditions. Ultrasound provides better imaging than a radiograph (i.e., X-ray), but is not as good as a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). However, ultrasound is more cost-effective and efficient.

Q: What conditions do your veterinarians diagnose with the help of ultrasound?

DA: “Ultrasound helps diagnose conditions such as major organ disease, cancers, intestinal blockages, urinary stones, septic abdomen, soft tissue abnormalities, vascular abnormalities, and occasionally pregnancies.”

Q: How do pets generally tolerate an ultrasound exam?

DA: “For the most part, patients do exceptionally well. An ultrasound exam typically takes about 10 to 15 minutes, and the pet must be on their back and restrained during this time. I would say 9 out of 10 patients are extremely compliant, but you have the occasional fighter. Chemical restraint is rarely necessary, but this is an option if the patient is too stressed to sit for the exam.”

Q: Can you relay any particular cases you remember when ultrasound was instrumental in the pet’s diagnosis or successful recovery? 

DA: “I recall one case where a dog was vomiting and had diarrhea for two months. The condition initially started as a serious bout of hemorrhagic gastric enteritis, and the patient was hospitalized and treated for days. He eventually went home on oral medications once he started doing better. However, he never really recovered, and the vomiting and diarrhea would start again as soon as he finished the medication course. After two months of remedicating to resolve the condition, an ultrasound was ordered. Previous radiographs had not revealed any problems, but using ultrasound, I found a foreign body protruding through an intestinal wall segment. The surgery revealed a one-inch wire he must have ingested two months previously.”

Ultrasound is a valuable noninvasive diagnostic tool that veterinarians rely on to diagnose numerous health conditions in pets. If your pet has a condition that may benefit from a diagnostic ultrasound, contact our Southern Arizona Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Clinic central location or east side location to schedule an appointment with our trained sonographer.