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By Naomi L. Burnick, MT (ASCP)

Naomi performing an ultrasound study
on a young Australian Terrier.

Ultrasound is an emerging technology that utilizes sound waves to visualize a moving image of the heart, liver, kidneys, spleen, urinary bladder and gallbladders, prostate, etc., . . . you get the idea. You may be familiar with it if you were pregnant and had an ultrasound examination to view the development of your unborn child; or you fisherfolk may have used an ultrasonic fish finder to get a jumpstart on where the fish are hiding.

The big advantage that ultrasound has over traditional imaging, such as x-rays, is that ultrasound enables you to see inside structures, such as the liver, to look for tumors, or actually watch the heart valves moving and determine whether the heart is contracting properly whereas x-rays only permit visualization of the outside silhouette of organs.

Why donít veterinary practices routinely have ultrasound equipment? Most ultrasound equipment is very expensive. A moderately-priced model costs about $30,000. Also the learning curve is very long, with few options for adequate training. The studies take about an hour to perform and that is a long time commitment for a veterinarian to be away from other obligations.

What kind of situations warrant an ultrasound? The scope is enormous-everything from pregnancy checks where we can actually see the fetal heart beat, to diagnoses of complex congenital heart defects. A very common initiating symptom is a heart murmur. For example, mitral valve disease is relatively common in older small breed dogs and we can see the abnormal valve leaflets and determine the severity of secondary heart chamber enlargements with the ultrasound exam. Murmurs in cats may indicate hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, thickening of the heart wall, which is readily confirmed by the ultrasound exam. Abdominal ultrasounds can reveal cancerous tumors, malformed kidneys, urinary bladder stones or abnormal liver texture. The list goes on and on. Most importantly, ultrasound can be used to help us see exactly where to take fine needle biopsies of abnormal tissue for an even more detailed analysis.

After the ultrasound study, Dr. Larry Tilley, our world-renowned veterinary cardiologist, and our team of boarded radiologists and cytologists will guide your veterinarian as to the best therapeutic approach.

Naomi L. Burtnick, MT (ASCP) and Dr. Larry P. Tilley, veterinary consultant, and their ultrasound unit share an office in the Eldorado area. Ms. Burtnick is an ultrasonographer with over 20 years of experience in Minnesota prior to moving to Santa Fe.

Note: This article first appeared in the Summer 1998 issue.

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