Veterinary medicine is always advancing, taking cues from human medicine through the years. Better diagnostics and medicines contribute to our pet’s health and can allow them to enjoy comfort and wellness throughout an ever growing lifespan. One such advancement in veterinary medicine is the use of magnetic resonance imaging, better known as an MRI.
You probably wouldn’t think twice if your doctor recommended that you have an MRI to diagnose a problem, but what if your veterinarian recommended it for your pet? MRIs used to be limited to human medicine, but recently they are becoming quite common for our four-legged family members, too!
How it works
An MRI scanner uses a powerful magnet to briefly align the water molecules found in the body’s tissues. Images are made by collecting the radiofrequency signals put off by the spinning nuclei in the presence of the magnet. From there, a 2D or 3D image can be made.
MRIs are used for diagnostic purposes. They provide more detail than x-rays, because unlike x-rays which are good at contrasting bone from soft tissue, MRIs can have good contrast between different types of soft tissues. This allows us to see lesions within the brain, heart, joints, heart, and the organs of the abdomen.
Conditions for which MRIs are particularly useful:
- Spinal injuries, back pain, intervertebral disk disease (IVDD), and paralysis.
- Lesions in the brain, which may cause seizures, or behavior problems.
- Lameness, joint pain.
- Diagnosing tumors, be they spinal tumors, brain tumors, or tumors of the abdominal organs.
MRIs as a whole are safe and painless. However, in veterinary medicine, patients undergoing an MRI must be anesthetized so that they remain motionless during the procedure. The use of anesthesia inherently adds risk to the procedure, though care will be taken to ensure a safe anesthetic experience for your pet.
If your pet needs an MRI, here is what you can expect:
- Because of the need for general anesthesia, your pet will need blood work and possibly an EKG prior to the procedure to ensure that he or she is healthy enough for anesthesia. If issues arise, your pet’s anesthesiologist will adjust the anesthetic plan accordingly.
- In preparation for your pet’s procedure, you will need to fast him or her overnight. This is because general anesthesia will be used during the MRI.
- Though the MRI itself will likely only take 30 to 60 minutes, you will probably need to drop your pet off in the morning. The MRI schedule may get backed up if emergencies come in, so it’s best to just leave your pet and wait for the phone call that the procedure is finished.
- After your pet’s MRI is done, the images will be reviewed by a radiologist. Speak to the staff at drop off to find out if you can expect results when you pick your pet up, or if the results will be available at another time. Sometimes, results aren’t available until the next day or later.
- Because your pet underwent general anesthesia, some inappetence and mild lethargy can be expected for the rest of the day.
Let's talk about money
Now for the nitty-gritty: MRIs aren’t cheap. This is because the machines themselves are expensive, costing upwards of a million dollars. In addition, they must be housed in specially shielded facilities because of the strong magnetic fields they produce, which can destroy medical equipment and computers. You can expect to spend around $1,500 for your pet’s MRI, but prices do vary from area to area. And of course, if you have Petplan pet insurance, your costs can be covered!
MRIs can provide answers where other diagnostics have failed, and may end up giving your veterinarian information that can save your pet’s life or otherwise drastically improve their quality of life. We are lucky to have the option to pursue this test – which until recently was limited to human medicine – on our furry family members, too!
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