Why does my pet need an echocardiogram?

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Why does my pet need an echocardiogram?

An echocardiogram is a basic diagnostic tool that is used in both human and veterinary medicine. Also called an echo or cardiac ultrasound, it is performed on pets to evaluate the condition and function of the heart and its associated structures in real-time. Keep reading to learn more about how an echocardiogram can help your vet evaluate your pet’s heart.

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What is an echocardiogram?

An echo provides valuable information about the heart’s shape, size, and function. It allows your vet to look at the heart’s four chambers, the heart valves, and structures surrounding the heart, such as the pericardium (the sac that surrounds the heart).

An echo is a non-invasive imaging modality that is used in pets to determine abnormalities of organs and tissues inside the body. The other imaging modalities include radiographs (x-ray), electrocardiogram (ECG), ultrasound, MRI, and CT scan. These procedures are performed without the need for surgery.

What is an echocardiogram used for?

An echocardiogram uses high-frequency sound waves to generate live images of the heart. It allows visualization of the structures of the heart. The echocardiogram results can provide crucial information about heart health and function, specifically:

  • Size of the heart
  • The thickness of the heart walls
  • The shape of the heart
  • Determine the efficiency of the pumping action and pumping capacity of the heart
  • Any abnormalities in the blood flow pattern
  • Blood clots that may be present
  • Any abnormalities in the heart valves
  • Any abnormalities in the pericardium (the sac that surrounds the heart) and the fluid inside the sac
  • Whether there is damage to any area of the heart

In addition to allowing a veterinary cardiologist to evaluate the action of the heart in real-time, an echocardiogram can also be used to monitor and assess how effectively specific treatments or medications are helping or if there is a need to change the dosage as well as add or change medications.

Why does my pet need an echocardiogram?

An echo can help determine if your pet’s heart is working properly. It shows the heart’s actual physical condition and structure, including the blood flow throughout your pet’s heart. The procedure is also capable of distinguishing between the heart’s soft tissue structures and the blood-filled chambers.

Symptoms of heart disease in pets often take time to develop. Thus, at first, many pet owners don’t notice any sign indicating the presence of heart disease.

Some of the important reasons why your pet may need an echocardiogram include the following:

  • When your vet detects a heart murmur during your pet’s physical exam
  • When your pet has been experiencing fainting spells or collapse
  • Radiograph (x-ray) results indicate a potential heart disease
  • Your pet has been having coughing spells
  • Dry cough after engaging in physical activity
  • Cough that becomes more persistent at night
  • Abnormal breathing - shortness of breath, needs extra effort to breathe, rapid breathing even when at rest
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Unexplained fatigue or lethargy
  • Sudden paralysis in the hind legs

What happens during your pet’s echocardiogram procedure?

Since an echo is a minimally invasive procedure, it can be performed without any need to administer pain relief medication. Some vets choose to sedate the animal to make sure that they will remain completely still during the duration of the procedure. This can help improve the clarity of the images that are generated which is vital for accurate assessment and diagnosis.

Your pet will be laid on his side and the electrocardiograph operator (sonographer) will apply a special gel to his chest to provide better conduction and allow the sound waves to better penetrate the wall of the chest, travel more efficiently, and produce an accurate image of your pet’s heart. Sometimes, there may be a need to shave a part of your pet’s hair coat so the probe (transducer) can make direct contact with the skin.

To get an accurate view of the heart, the probe is placed in various strategic areas on the skin between the ribs. It must be between the ribs and not on the ribs because bones don’t conduct sound waves very well. Sound waves from the probe are directed to the heart and the echoes are translated into images that are seen on a screen. The procedure generally takes 20-30 minutes.

Is it ok for my pet to eat and drink before the procedure?

Normally, there is no need to withhold food or water from your pet before an echocardiogram appointment. Also, you should not stop giving your pet’s medication at the usual time. There are special instances, however, when your vet may ask you to withhold food, water, and/or medications from your pet so be sure to ask when you schedule the appointment.

Medical Issues That Can Be Detected by an Echocardiogram

An echocardiogram can determine a variety of heart problems and conditions including cardiac arrhythmias, congestive heart failure, congenital heart defects, heart tumors, as well as any damage to the heart, pericardium, and heart valves.

Heart disease is a common medical problem among dogs and cats. Large breed dogs have higher risks of having cardiac rhythm problems and a weak heart muscle. On the other hand, there is a higher incidence of heart valve problems in smaller breed dogs compared to their larger counterparts.

One of the important indicators of heart health is the strength of the heart’s contraction. With an echo, the veterinary cardiologist or sonographer can view the heart pumping in real-time. If your pet has heart disease, there will be poor contraction of the heart walls, or the walls of the heart may not be as thick as they should be.

The Doppler technology which is used in echocardiograms allows a vet to track the flow of blood through an animal’s heart. The blood flow is indicated by certain colors showing the specific direction of flow. This will enable your vet to see if your pet’s heart has any holes or the heart valves have any leaks. An echo also lets your vet observe the motion and function of the heart valve. Many diseases of the heart are attributed to valves that are stiff or leaky.

What happens after an echocardiogram?

If the results show specific abnormalities in the heart and/or any of its associated structures, your vet can tailor a treatment regimen for your pet’s heart problem and/or recommend further diagnostics.

Read more:

Your Pet’s Heart: A Guide to Understanding Heart Health in Dogs and Cats

Heart Murmurs in Dogs

Heart Murmurs in Cats

Need to speak with a veterinarian regarding your pet’s heart disease or another condition?

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Published: 9/3/2021
Last updated: 6/16/2022

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