MRI for pets can help detect, diagnose problems in animals

MRI for pets can help detect, diagnose problems in animals

Credit: Lance Frank / LSU

Dr. Lorrie Gaschen of the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine looks at scans from a dog's recent MRI.


by Lance Frank / Contributing Writer

Posted on September 28, 2009 at 11:59 AM

Updated Thursday, Oct 22 at 5:42 PM

When Karen Wolfsheimer's 9-year-old Dalmatian showed signs of neck pain, Wolfsheimer had a difficult decision to make: Let the dog suffer or spend hundreds of dollars on medical tests.

For Wolfsheimer of Baton Rouge, the choice was easy.? "We had to try to find out what was wrong."

Wolfsheimer brought her dog to a veterinary surgeon in Metairie, but the doctor could not determine the cause of the pain.? The veterinarian told Wolfsheimer the dog needed an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to properly diagnose the problem.?

She had two choices: the School of Veterinary Science at Mississippi or Louisiana State University, which had installed the equipment earlier this year.? Because she lives in Baton Rouge, the LSU option was much more convenient.?

Lorrie Gaschen, LSU veterinarian radiologist, said the magnetic resonance imaging technology makes it possible for veterinarians to take a closer, non-evasive look at the bones and soft tissues inside animals' bodies, as it does in the case of human MRIs.

The $ 2 million 1.5 Tesla MRI unit is the only high field magnetic resonance imaging machine for veterinary use in Louisiana. High field refers to magnet's strength, which is powerful enough to give a clear picture of an animal's tissues and bones.

"There are so many diseases that can't be diagnosed with any other means," Gaschen said. "The typical methods like computer tomography (CT) scans, X-Rays or ultrasounds don't lend themselves to seeing the tissues and abnormalities that we want to see."

Unlike LSU, the College of Veterinary Medicine at Mississippi State University at Starkville does not own an MRI machine. The school partners with two outside companies that specialize in medical technology, and jointly use a 3 Tesla MRI machine located on campus, said Michael Thomas, a clinical professor of diagnostic imaging at MSU's vet school.

The MRI unit is useful when dealing with musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, neurological and oncological problems, she says.

"Brain and spinal cord disease are very common in dogs and cats, and that's one of the common reasons we person MRI exams," she said. "I can't see brain and spinal cord tissue any other way."

The MRI unit is suitable to examine any small animals like dogs and cats and larger animals like horses. ?

The machine is on the first floor of the hospital with access from the main building and Equine Hospital to provide easy access for animals of all sizes. ??

"If you have a horse with lameness in the foot - when the foot is covered by the hoof - I can take the X-Ray to see the bone, but I can't see anything in the tendons associated with the foot pain," Gaschen said. "There is no other way to look inside the hoof and see those soft tissues. "

The entire project -?purchasing the machine and renovating the room it occupies -?cost the Vet School nearly $2 million.

So far, LSU veterinarians have examined nearly 60 animals using the MRI technology. Outside veterinarians also refer their patients to LSU if MRI scans are necessary.

Although Wolfsheimer chose to further her dog's treatment by getting the MRI exam, the hard part was deciding how to pay for it. ?

"I canceled my lab tests and sacrificed my own physical exam to pay for my dog's MRI," Wolfsheimer said. "Our pets are own children, and we take our pet ownership very seriously."

The cost for an MRI at LSU is $950, including anesthesia.

"We're hoping with that low price to get people interested in doing it and making it affordable," Gaschen said. "We consider all options before we recommend the MRI to our patients because, although we keep the price low, we know it is still costly."

An MRI procedure Mississippi State costs nearly $1,200. It is more expensive than LSU's because the MRI machine's magnet is of 3 Tesla strength.

"The 3 Tesla magnets give greater feature detail in the images, but that does not mean our machine is any less," Gaschen said. "The 1.5 Tesla magnet does a great job at showing us what we need to see."

LSU also has a greater demand for the service. About five to six animals receive MRI exams every week at LSU, while only two to three animals are treated a week at Mississippi State.

"We're doing far better than we actually thought,"?LSU's Gaschen said. "An MRI gives you more answers. It is not the final step, but it is a crucial step in diagnostic treatment."

After Wolfsheimer's dog underwent the 45-minute operation, she said, veterinarians found no abnormalities that would cause the dog pain. "There was no treatment after that. Maybe she overexerted herself playing, but we still don't know what we wrong."

The dog's pain stopped days after the MRI exam, and Wolfsheimer said she was still thankful the technology was available.

"It's very expensive to have an MRI done and pets, for some people, are so much a part of their families that they want the pet taken care of," Gaschen said. "For them, the value of $950 is well worth it if it means their companion and loved one will be taken care of."