CT Scans for Dogs. Are They Really Necessary?


A CT (computed tomography) scan is an advanced diagnostic imaging technique that uses X-rays and a computer to create detailed cross-sectional images of the inside of a dog’s body. CT scans allow veterinarians to see fine details of a dog’s internal structures including soft tissues, organs, bones and blood vessels. This level of detail helps vets evaluate conditions like cancer, infections, fractures and organ abnormalities.

While CT scans have become an important diagnostic tool in veterinary medicine, they can be expensive tests that expose dogs to radiation. This raises the key question for dog owners of whether the potential benefits of getting a CT scan for their dog outweigh the risks and costs. This article examines the pros and cons of CT scans for dogs to help owners decide if it is the right choice for their pet.

What is a CT scan?

A CT scan, also known as computed tomography scan, is a medical imaging technique that uses X-rays and computers to create detailed images of the inside of the body (https://www.nibib.nih.gov/science-education/science-topics/computed-tomography-ct). It allows doctors to see internal organs, blood vessels, bones and tissues in cross sectional “slices”.

During a CT scan, the patient lies on a table that slides into a large donut-shaped machine. X-rays are generated from different angles around the body and are detected by special sensors. The signals from the sensors are processed by a computer to create cross-sectional images or “slices” of the area being scanned. These image slices can then be combined to produce 3D views of the inside of the body.

Unlike a regular X-ray that shows a single flat view, a CT scan provides more detailed information about the shape, size and position of organs, tumors, fractures etc. It can detect even small abnormalities very precisely. This makes it a useful diagnostic tool for cancer, injuries, infections and many other conditions.

Common uses of CT scans in dogs

According to the experts at South Wilton Veterinary Group, CT scans are commonly used to diagnose cancer and plan treatments (1). CT scans can detect tumors in areas like the nasal cavity, brain, lungs, abdomen, and chest that may not show up well on X-rays. They also help determine if cancer has metastasized to other parts of the body. This assists vets in staging cancer and determining the best options for surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy.

CT scans are also useful for identifying intervertebral disc disease and spinal cord compression, according to PetMD (2). The cross-sectional images from a CT scan can pinpoint the exact location of a herniated disc pressing on the spinal cord. This helps the vet determine the best course of treatment, whether that’s medication, surgery, or rehabilitation.

Additionally, CT scans are sometimes used to diagnose inflammatory bowel disease in dogs, notes Ethos Veterinary Health (3). IBD can be challenging to identify, but a CT scan of the abdominal area may reveal thickening of the intestinal walls characteristic of the disease. This assists vets in prescribing medications or dietary changes to manage it.

Other common uses of CT scans in dogs include diagnosing pneumonia, evaluating fractures and joint injuries, identifying foreign bodies, and assessing neurological conditions like hydrocephalus.

Potential benefits of a CT scan

A CT scan can provide your veterinarian with valuable diagnostic information to identify or better characterize health conditions in dogs. According to South Wilton Veterinary Group, CT scans allow veterinarians to view internal organs, blood vessels, bones and tissues in multiple planes and cross-sections. This level of detail can help diagnose conditions like cancer, infections, internal injuries or bleeding, organ malformations and more.

a ct scan showing a tumor in a dog's lung

As explained by Memphis Veterinary Specialists, CT scans are considered the gold standard for evaluating structures within the skull such as the inner/middle ear, nasal cavity, sinuses and brain. They can detect small changes in tissue density that may indicate a tumor or other pathology. CT scans also excel at visualizing bones, so they can identify fractures, arthritis, congenital anomalies and more.

Overall, a CT scan can provide a clear picture of a health issue to help your veterinarian make an accurate diagnosis. This in turn allows them to recommend the most effective treatment plan for your dog’s specific condition.

Risks and downsides

While CT scans can provide valuable diagnostic information, there are some risks and downsides to consider. The main risks involve sedation and radiation exposure.

Sedation carries a small risk of complications like low blood pressure, slowed heart or respiratory rates, and in very rare cases, death. Generally, vets use short-acting sedatives that wear off quickly, but some dogs may be sensitive or have reactions. Your vet will monitor your dog closely during the procedure. Older dogs and those with health conditions may have greater sedation risks.[1]

a veterinarian monitoring a sedated dog undergoing a ct scan

The radiation exposure from a CT scan is another consideration. Studies show the level of radiation is fairly low, especially compared to the number of x-rays a person typically gets in a lifetime.[2][3] However, the risks likely increase with multiple or frequent CT scans. Young dogs and those with longer life expectancies have greater lifetime risks from radiation. The scanning equipment itself can also pose a minor risk of injury if the dog moves during the scan.

Overall, while sedation and radiation risks are real, they are small and usually outweighed by the benefits of diagnostic information. Be sure to discuss your dog’s health history and any particular risks with your veterinarian.

[1] Risks and Benefits of Anesthesia for Pets
[2] Radiation exposure and mortality risk from CT and PET imaging

[3] Is radiation from a CT or PET scan dangerous?

Cost considerations

A CT scan is an expensive diagnostic imaging procedure for dogs. According to sources, the typical cost range for a CT scan procedure on a dog is $1,500 to $3,500 or more, depending on the area of the body being scanned and whether contrast is needed (Source). Some specific estimates from vet clinics are $950 for a thorax or abdominal CT scan and $650 for a full skull CT scan (Source).

text showing the typical cost range for a dog to get a ct scan

The cost is significantly higher than other diagnostic imaging tools like X-rays or ultrasounds, which may range from $100-500. However, CT scans can provide much more detailed 3D views and detect issues not visible on X-rays. So while expensive, a CT scan may be warranted if your vet needs an advanced imaging diagnostic for a complex health issue.

When is it necessary?

Veterinarians generally recommend CT scans for dogs when there is a suspicion of cancer or tumors, especially if surgical intervention is being considered. According to https://www.southwiltonvet.com/site/blog-fairfield-county-vet/2021/08/31/ct-scan-dogs, CT scans can help locate tumors, determine if they are benign or cancerous, and assess the extent of their spread. This information allows vets to better plan for surgery or other treatments.

CT scans also excel at diagnosing spinal issues, fractures, joint problems, and diseases of the internal organs like liver or kidney disease, where seeing inside the body is crucial https://www.ethosvet.com/blog-post/computed-tomography-ct-scan/. For neurological issues like seizures, CT scans provide views of the brain unobtainable through other means.

However, for more routine concerns like minor injuries, digestive issues, or respiratory infections, a CT scan may be excessive, as x-rays, ultrasounds, bloodwork and clinical exams can suffice. Unless cancer or critical injury is suspected, the high cost of CT scans outweighs the benefits for more common ailments. Vets will determine if advanced imaging is truly necessary based on symptoms and initial diagnostic results.

Questions to ask your vet

Having an open and thorough discussion with your veterinarian is key to determining if a CT scan is recommended for your dog. Here are some important questions to consider asking:

What specifically are you hoping to learn from the CT scan? Understanding the vet’s rationale can help you evaluate if the potential benefits outweigh the risks and costs.

Are there any alternatives that may provide similar diagnostic information? For example, ultrasounds, X-rays, or MRI scans may be options depending on the situation (1).

a person asking their vet questions about getting a ct scan for their dog

What are the risks and downsides of sedation and anesthesia? These are required for a CT scan and should be factored into the decision-making process.

How urgent is the need for a CT scan? In some cases, it may be better to try more conservative treatments first before pursuing advanced imaging.

What will the approximate costs be including the scan itself and any follow-up procedures? CT scans often range from $1,000-$3,000 so financial preparedness is advised (2).

If a concerning condition is found, what treatment options may be available? Understanding potential next steps can guide owners on whether detection is worthwhile.

Asking the right questions and having an open dialogue with your vet is key to determining if your dog would benefit from a CT scan. The potential risks, costs, and benefits should all be weighed carefully.

(1) https://www.dixieanimalhospital.com/blog/13063-10-questions-to-ask-your-vet-when-your-pet-gets-the-big-cancer-diagnosis
(2) https://vsnt.com/10-questions-you-should-ask-your-veterinary-oncologist/

Alternatives to Consider

While CT scans can provide valuable diagnostic information, they may not always be necessary. There are some other imaging and diagnostic options that can potentially provide useful information at a lower cost:

X-rays are a more affordable option that may detect bone changes or large masses. According to Hallmarq (2022), x-rays are better for assessing bone details. However, they do not provide the same level of soft tissue detail as a CT scan.

Ultrasounds allow visualizing of organs and soft tissues. Ultrasounds are non-invasive and do not require anesthesia. This makes them a safer option than CT scans for some dogs. However, image quality can be lower.

MRI scans provide exceptional soft tissue detail like CT scans. They involve no radiation exposure. However, they often cost more than CT scans and usually require anesthesia (Hallmarq, 2022).

Biopsies or fine needle aspirates can help diagnose tumors and masses. While they do not provide imaging, they can definitively diagnose cancer and other conditions.

Discussing these options with your veterinarian can help determine if another test may provide the needed information for less cost and risk than a CT scan.

The bottom line

There are clear benefits to getting a CT scan for your dog if recommended by your veterinarian, but there are also downsides to consider. A CT scan allows for an in-depth, three-dimensional view inside your dog’s body to identify conditions not visible on x-rays or detect the extent of diseases like cancer. This can lead to earlier treatment and better outcomes. However, CT scans require anesthesia and expose your dog to radiation. They are also expensive, costing $1,000-$2,000 on average. Weighing the pros and cons depends on your dog’s symptoms and specific situation.

In many cases, starting with an ultrasound or x-rays may be preferable to see if a CT is truly necessary. Your vet can help determine if your dog’s symptoms warrant the detailed view a CT scan provides. If your dog has serious, unexplained symptoms, a CT scan can be extremely useful in obtaining an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. But for stable or minor conditions, the costs and anesthesia may not be justified. Discuss all options with your vet and consider your dog’s age, symptoms, and prognosis. If advanced imaging will significantly impact the treatment approach, then the benefits likely outweigh the downsides.

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