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What is a dog or cat heart scan?

If your vet has identified a potential problem with your pet’s heart, this can be a scary time as an owner. Your vet will only be able to determine a certain amount of information by examining your pet and using their stethoscope. They may recommend further tests to discover more about your pet’s heart; and whether they need any intervention such as medication or further tests. There are a variety of diagnostic procedures which may be recommended depending on your pet’s symptoms and examination results, including blood tests, x-rays and ultrasound scans. 

So, what exactly is a heart scan, and why might your pet need one?

What is a heart scan?

A heart scan, or echocardiogram (also called an ‘echo’ or a cardiac ultrasound scan) is a method of looking closely at your pet’s heart using an ultrasound scanner. Ultrasound scans use high frequency waves to produce a picture of your pet’s heart. It allows your vet to assess the heart whilst it beats in real-time. An echo gives an insight into the size and function of the whole heart; including the four chambers, valves, the space around the heart and the thickness of the walls. The scan can also look at the flow of blood through the heart, and how efficiently it is beating.

Why might my pet need a heart scan?

Your vet may advise that your pet has a heart scan if they suspect a problem with the heart. This may be because of certain signs your pet is showing, such as fainting, coughing or struggling to exercise, or if your vet picks up on a potential problem during an examination. Heart scans may also be recommended due to their age or breed.

When your vet examines your pet, there can be certain signs that your pet’s heart is not functioning correctly. Whilst listening with a stethoscope, a vet can pick up on heart murmurs, variations in heart rate and rhythm and any unusual lung noises which may indicate congestion. There may also be other signs around the body, such as poor pulses or fluid build-up in the abdomen or chest. 

A heart scan is often the next step towards making a diagnosis if any of these findings are present. 

An echocardiogram can also be used as a monitoring tool, to check a response to medication or to judge when further intervention is needed. If your pet has known heart disease, you may be advised to bring them for regular scans to allow measurements to be taken. And to allow your vet to make decisions about their treatment based on the progression of the disease. 

Will my own vet do the heart scan?

Most vet practices will have an ultrasound machine, but performing an echocardiogram is an advanced procedure. Your regular veterinary surgeon, or one of their colleagues in the practice, may have undertaken further training to perform this diagnostic test. If not, a specialist may be required. If a veterinary cardiologist is needed, they may visit your usual practice. Or you may be asked to travel to a nearby larger centre. 

What to expect on the day

A cardiac ultrasound is a very safe and non-invasive procedure. Your pet will need to lie down on a specially designed table, in a dark, quiet room. They will likely have some fur clipped on either side of their chest, just behind the armpit, as the ultrasound waves don’t penetrate very well through hair. The probe is placed on top of the skin and moved around slowly and gently to allow the vet to assess the whole heart. It is rare for pets to need sedation for this procedure. But mild sedatives or anti-anxiety medication may be used if the pet is very nervous or finding it hard to remain still and quiet. Your pet should be able to go home the same day. And the results of the scan will be discussed with you promptly. 

Will my pet need treatment and medication?

If your pet has been diagnosed with a heart murmur, it is easy to jump ahead and start thinking that they may have heart disease and need lots of tablets and extra care. Don’t panic! Heart murmurs vary in both cause and severity, which is why further tests such as an echo are usually needed to determine if your pet’s heart does need extra support. 

Your vet will go through the results of the scan with you. There are usually a few possible outcomes:

  • Your pet’s heart scan is normal, and they require no treatment. Regular monitoring may well be advised.
  • Your pet’s heart shows some abnormalities, but further tests are needed to determine more information. This may include an ECG (electrocardiogram), blood tests or x-rays.
  • Your pet’s heart shows some abnormalities, but they are not currently causing any problems – your pet is compensating well. They may require supportive medication, or just regular checks.
  • Your pet’s heart is not beating efficiently, and they are showing signs of heart failure. They will likely require medication and to be closely monitored, but most causes of heart disease can nowadays be managed very effectively. 

Heart scans: summing up

  • A heart scan, or echocardiogram, is an ultrasound scan of the heart
  • An echo allows a full assessment of the heart muscle in real time: the size, shape and efficiency of the chambers, valves and surrounding tissues. 
  • An echo is usually a day procedure, performed by a vet who is trained in this type of diagnostic imaging. 
  • It is a safe and non-invasive procedure, and is usually performed fully conscious. 
  • The results of the scan may be used to monitor your pet, and to decide on management and treatment plans. 

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