What Is Veterinary Diagnostic Imaging For Felines?

Veterinary diagnostic imaging includes radiographs (x-rays), ultrasound, MRIs and CT scans, all of which are used as diagnostic tools to collect information on your cat's health. The vast majority of imaging is non-invasive and completely painless. However, some imaging may require sedation or even anesthesia because the cat must be kept still to allow for adequate images to be produced. Veterinarians use these images to collect information on your cat to help them to make a medical and sometimes surgical plan.

Diagnostic Imaging for your Cat:

Hi. I'm Amy. I'm a licensed veterinary technician here at Advanced Animal Care Berea. I have someone here that's going to be asking me some questions about your cat's diagnostic imaging.

Video Transcript:

Who will take my cat's x-rays or performance ultrasound, MRI or CT scan?

It's usually the, our technicians, our licensed vet techs or our assistants will take the radiographs or the x-rays. If it's an ultrasound, the doctor will perform an ultrasound.

How long will diagnostic imaging take?

Doesn't usually take very long. It depends on how cooperative our patients are. If the dog or cat will sit, lay still, if we need to take a picture of their leg or their abdomen, if they'll lay perfectly still, it only takes a few moments. The actual imaging itself takes about five seconds. And we have digital radiographs, so our images come up. We take the x-rays, the x-rays come down, and then within seconds we have imaging on our computer screen. So it's very fast. And, so again, it's all dependent on how cooperative our patients are. If they will lay perfectly still, it's minutes.

What is diagnostic imaging and what are some examples?

Diagnostic imaging is, for examples, are x-rays or radiographs and ultrasound.

How diagnostic imaging help my cat?

Well, oftentimes we cannot see through your pet. We can tell sometimes that there's something going on, whether your pet's vomiting or just not acting right. And if we need to, or if we're feeling that there's something going on in the abdomen, we oftentimes need to take x-rays or do ultrasound to see what's going on in the intestinal tract and in the abdomen.

Is diagnostic imaging painful?

Not at all. It is not painful at all. The hardest part is having to lay still.

How effective is diagnostic imaging in cats?

Very effective. Oftentimes we need to see if they've eaten something that they shouldn't. Cats are notorious for eating things like needles and thread. Needles will show up on x-ray, on radiograph, and oftentimes we're looking for irregular gas patterns, reasons for why they might be vomiting or having diarrhea or not acting right.

How will my vet decide which diagnostic imaging type to use?

Well, the two different kinds of diagnostic imaging that we use are x-ray and ultrasound. It depends on what the problem is. We usually will start with x-rays. If we need to see something a little bit more in depth, then we'll switch to ultrasound.

Which diagnostic imaging type is the most accurate and why?

There's not one that's necessarily more accurate than another. X-ray or radiographs will allow us to see things like bone. If your pet is vomiting or having diarrhea and we need to check gas patterns in the abdomen or in the intestinal system, we will use x-ray to look for that. We can see the bones, we can see the intestinal tract, and we can see gas patterns as well.

Will more than one type of imaging be used to diagnose my cat's condition?

Again, it depends on what's going on with the pet. Usually we start with x-ray, but sometimes ultrasound is more diagnostic depending on what the situation is. More often than not we start with x-rays or radiographs.

What is the procedure like for each diagnostic imaging type?

When we do radiographs, again, depends on what the situation is. In this little critter's situation, he has a broken leg. What we did was lay him on the table, and luckily he was still enough and he was cooperative enough that we were able to x-ray his leg without sedation. Oftentimes, pets will not lay perfectly still for their safety and for our safety. Sometimes they need to be sedated beforehand, so that they will lay still enough. Most often we can do it awake, but there are situations where the pet is just too painful. Again, if it's a broken bone, a broken leg, broken hip, something like that, we may need to sedate your pet beforehand. But oftentimes we are able to do it, to do our x-rays, our radiographs without sedation.

When Is Veterinary Diagnostic Imaging Necessary For Your Cat?

After your veterinarian has examined your cat, he or she may want to begin to collect more information that will lead to a diagnosis and then, a treatment plan. X-rays are usually a first line of imaging. The x-ray may lead to a diagnosis which allows them to move forward with a plan. However, sometimes the next step may be ultrasound to get a more thorough or specific look at a particular area of the body.

For instance, if your cat is vomiting and feeling ill, you veterinarian may take an xray to look for possible causes such as obstruction of intestines or an obvious foreign body. The x-ray may show some signs of an intestinal obstruction, however, before proceeding to surgery, it would be prudent in some cases to follow with an abdominal ultrasound. The ultrasound will give more detail of the area and therefore allow more confidence of the treatment plan to move forward with surgery. Occasionally, x-rays and ultrasound allow for a definitive diagnosis but other times they will simply add more information to help put the puzzle together for the best treatment plan for your cat.

The four types of Veterinary Diagnostic Imaging our veterinarians may utilize to assist in diagnosis of your cat's condition are:

  • X-Rays
  • MRIs
  • Ultrasounds
  • CT Scans

More information on each of these types of radiographs is provided below.

Cat X-Rays

Cat x-rays have been in use throughout the medical community for many decades. Cat x-rays are by far the most regularly used form of diagnostic imaging in the veterinary industry because they are cost effective (comparatively speaking), and they can accurately diagnose the state of skeletal structure and composition, large body cavities, and the presence of many foreign objects. Cat x-rays are totally painless, but some cats can benefit from sedation to reduce anxiety and stress.

Cat x-rays usually proceed as follows:

  • The cat is placed on the x-ray table
  • A technician positions the x-ray machine so that the x-ray beam targets only the area of interest
  • Modern x-ray equipment allow for low levels of radiation and when used only occasionally are perfectly safe for your cat
  • Because cat x-rays are static images, the procedure usually requires less time than a procedure like an MRI

Cat x-rays have traditionally been captured on actual film, and still can be when necessary. However, our x-ray images are now digital which allows us to capture the images on a secure server that our veterinarians can access at any time, and can also share with specialists, if necessary.

Cat Ultrasounds

A cat ultrasound is the second most common type of diagnostic imaging tool veterinarians use to diagnose a cat's medical condition. Ultrasounds use soundwaves to examine and photograph internal tissues in real time. An ultrasound allows a veterinarian to see into a cat's body, allowing for easy viewing of organs from different angles that are not easily achieved through x-rays. The functioning of various organs can be observed to determine if they are malfunctioning.

A cat ultrasound procedure usually proceeds as follows:

  • A cat ultrasound technician gently presses a small probe against the cat's body that emits digital sound waves
  • The sound waves are directed to various parts of the cat's abdominal area by manually shifting the probe's position
  • The sound beam changes velocity while passing through varying body tissue density, which causes echoes
  • Our ultrasound equipment converts these echoes into electrical impulses that are then further transformed into a digital image that represents the appearance of the tissues
  • These images can be viewed in real time by a veterinarian, as well as stored for further review at any time. These images are sent to a radiologist to review in most cases.

In modern scanning systems like the ones Advanced Animal Care has on-site and uses on our feline patients, the sound beam sweeps through the body many times per second. This produces a dynamic, real-time image that changes as the cat ultrasound device moves across a cat's body. We can use the results of an ultrasound to determine what is ailing your cat, and to devise the most effective treatment protocol.


Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is the newest form of diagnostic imaging being used for both human and veterinary medicine. Cat MRI equipment generates a very powerful magnetic field, resulting in detailed anatomic images of whatever part of a cat's body is being scanned. No x-rays are involved, and a cat MRI is considered extremely safe. This procedure is not performed at Advanced Animal Care but we can refer our patients to a facility that does should an MRI be warranted. 

A cat MRI procedure usually proceeds as follows:

The cat's body is continuously pulsed with radio waves for a period of time, usually 10-20 minutes

  • Cats must be sedated for this procedure because they cannot be restrained by humans and must remain still during the procedure
  • For the procedure, a cat is placed in a tubular electromagnetic chamber
  • The pulsing causes the cat's body tissues to emit radio frequency waves that can be detected by the MRI equipment. Many repetitions of these pulses and subsequent emissions are required in order to generate adequate digital feedback for the equipment to interpret.
  • The feedback is then converted into images that can be displayed on a screen, and can also be saved for future study

A cat MRI is not used as regularly as an x-ray or ultrasound because the equipment is very expensive, very large, and requires specially trained technicians to operate. Advanced Animal Care does not provide this service but we can refer our patients to a facility that does should there be a need. 

CT Scans For cats

CT scans for cats, also known as "cat scans," are computer enhanced cat x-ray procedures most often used to evaluate complex parts of the body, such as the head, chest, some joints and various internal organs. CT scans show different levels of tissue density, and produce more detailed images than x-rays. Unlike MRI's, CT scans for cats do not use magnetic field waves so they cannot compare changes in fluid levels due to inflammation or bleeding. Therefore, CT scans for cats are used in situations where an MRI is considered unnecessary but a traditional x-ray is inconclusive or insufficient. Just like MRI equipment, CT scan equipment is very expensive, large and requires trained technicians to operate. This procedure is not performed at Advanced Animal Care but should a CT scan be recommended, we can refer our patients to a facility that does.

CT scans for cats usually proceed as follows:

  • Cats must be sedated for this procedure because they cannot be restrained by humans and must remain still during the procedure
  • The cat is placed on a motorized bed inside of a CT scanner, a machine that takes a series of x-rays from various angles*
  • When one series, or scan, is completed, the bed moves forward, and another scan is taken
  • A computer uses these scans to create cross-sectional images of the body part under investigation, and then display the images on a monitor (An x-ray dye may be injected intravenously to make it easier to see abnormalities)
  • By sequentially scanning an entire body area, an organ or other structure can be imaged without invasively penetrating the body, or disrupting neighboring structures

CT scans for cats are most often used by our veterinarians to detect structural changes deep within a cat's body, including:

  • Tumors
  • Deep abcesses or foreign body presence
  • Fractures

Just like MRI equipment, CT scan equipment is very expensive, large and requires trained technicians to operate. 

How Feline Radiographs Influence Veterinary Recommendations

The goal of feline radiographs is to ascertain a diagnosis, or obtain a final answer without having to perform further, more invasive tests or procedures. For example, an x-ray might show evidence of a tumor of the spine and possibly involve the surrounding muscle. The addition of an MRI would reveal the specific tumor and the extent that the tumor extends into the surrounding muscle tissue. This type of information is very important for a prognosis and treatment plan.

Veterinary diagnostic imaging offers an array of incredibly useful tools within a veterinarian's toolkit. Sometimes a diagnostic imaging session can lead to the need for further diagnostics. 

If you are concerned that your cat might be injured or experiencing internal problems, or to discuss how feline radiographs can benefit him or her, please contact us to schedule an appointment with one of our veterinarians today.