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Understanding MR Imaging for Your Pet

Fri, Nov 15, 2013

A Burgeoning Demand

Americans spend $11.1 billion annually on animal care — a staggering figure, for sure, but one which illustrates pet owners’ devotion to their four-legged family members. And while pet owners want the best In veterinary treatment for their companion animals, no one wants to subject Fido or Tabby to face surgery, harmful dyes or x-rays unless absolutely necessary. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) offers veterinarians have a revolutionary diagnostic tool for all types of animals.  There are approximately 73 million cats and 68 million dogs in the United States. Pet owners demand advanced health care options for what were, not so long ago, considered devastating medical conditions such as cancer, tumors, and complex orthopedic conditions. In fact, pet parents expect the same level of medical care for their pets as they do for themselves.

To help with the cost of sophisticated medical procedures, pet health insurance plans have entered the mainstream in the U.S. According to Laura Bennett, Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of Embrace Pet Insurance, the U.S. pet insurance industry saw gross written premiums (GWP) reach $359 million in 2011 up from $256 million in 2008. The three largest U.S. pet insurers represent 73% of the market in 2011. It is anticipated that the pet insurance market will continue to grow.  While there are many MRI resources from which to choose, depending on your location in the United States, as a pet owner, what should you know when an MRI is being considered for your pet?  Let’s start from the beginning.

What’s An MRI?

MRI is a non-invasive medical imaging technique producing detailed images of many parts of the body. An MRI scanner contains a large, extremely powerful magnet with a tunnel through the middle where the patient lies on a narrow, moveable bed.  Introduced into as a viable medical test procedure in the 1980s, similar diagnostics were introduced for pets in the mid-1990s beginning with horses for obvious logistical reasons (before then, smaller animals often received MRIs off hours in human diagnostic centers). Today, there are almost 500 board-certified veterinary radiologists and radiation oncologists serving veterinary professionals, pet owners and their animals through the American College of Veterinary Radiology.

MRIs are versatile diagnostic tools with many uses including examining:

In the United States, the price of an MRI, before insurance, is $1,100 to $2,200, depending on the region of the country.

Are MRIs Safe?

MRIs are considered an effective, safe and painless diagnostic tool that uses no radiation. Because the patient must stay perfectly still during the procedure, your pet will receive anesthesia for the procedure.

What You Should Know Before Your Pet Has an MRI

There are special considerations for animals that should be reviewed with your veterinarian to determine if your companion animal is a candidate for an MRI.  Since MRIs use extremely powerful magnets, it is essential that there is no metal in or on the animal while the test is administered. Pets with microchips can have an MRI despite a small amount of metal in the chip. However, could be an “image artifact” (a feature which appears in an image which is not present in the original imaged object).

In fact, in a study conducted at the University of Tennessee and published in the March 2012 issue of the “Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, 53 pets with microchips were given MRIs to measure the safety of this procedure for these devices for pets with microchips. Before and after the procedure pets’ microchips were scanned and chip numbers were recorded. In all cases, MRI did not interfere with the radio frequency of these devices.  In most cases where metal is contained on or in the animal, this metal can become dislodged and or heat up during the scan causing injury to the animal. If you are unsure of the animal’s prior history – including the ingestion of foreign objects that may contain metal (think: a hair pin, pen cap, or shrapnel from a BB).

MRI can expose animals to levels of noise and duration that would exceed National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) human exposure limits.

Ask your veterinarian or contact the facility that will perform the MRI to learn more about the safeguards used to protect your pet’s hearing.

Occasionally, animals can experience hypothermia (low body temperature) as a result of anesthesia. Cats and dogs can suffer from hyperthermia (elevated body temperature) when the animal is intubated (a breathing tube is inserted into the airway). Intubation does not allow the animal to pant, thus raising its body temperature. Smaller animals are more susceptible because they have less body fat. Talk to your veterinarian about the precautions that are used in his or her office.  MRI offers amazing technology that has dramatically lessened the need for exploratory surgeries in both humans and animals. It is the “go-to” procedure for use by physicians and veterinarians to assess a variety of physiological conditions throughout the body. If an MRI is an option for your pet, be sure that you fully understand the benefits and the risks that the procedure presents.