Animal MRIs give vets a closer look

Animal MRIs give vets a closer look

X-rays and CT scans have provided insight into a 6-year-old retriever's condition, but there are too many unknowns for a solid diagnosis. Luckily the there's another option the pet, his owner and veterinarian: magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.

The unknown can be terrifying for people and their pets. Strange behavior, sudden sickness and traumatic injuries are among the events that cause pet owners to seek medical help for their animals.

One difference between humans and pets is that a people doctor can ask questions with the likelihood of getting a helpful response. Beyond asking a dog whether it wants a treat, veterinarians have to answer their own questions — or go to another human for help.

That's where Sage Veterinary Imaging, run by pet radiologist Jaime Sage, fills a void.

“You provide MRIs to animals for the exact same reason as people,” Sage said. “But animals can’t talk, and usually the signs are more severe by the time I see them.”

Veterinarians asking for Sage's help typically are looking at muscular cell, central nervous system, brain and spine issues. Seizures, inability to walk, disc herniation and cancer often produce scenarios where MRIs help.

"They tend to be emergency-type things," Sage said. "If a dog is normal one moment and two seconds later can't walk, we're looking at an emergency, and something that may involve surgery."

Diana Schropp of Southern Oregon Veterinary Specialty Center in Central Point said MRIs are often used to see inside an animal's skull or other areas where CT scans or X-rays come up short.

"Generally, when there is something going on inside the skull or we want to look at soft tissue, MRIs give us much better details," Schropp said. "We can do very fine slices of what we are looking at when we put the images through the computer program. We can look at things from different angles. It allows us to use dye contrasts."

Animal MRIs cost about $1,700 and have been available for 15 years. They primarily occur in the after-hours at place such as Southern Oregon Imaging in Ashland. The  sheer enormity of the apparatus cost deters most veterinarian hospitals from acquiring the machinery.  Beyond the initial investment, space and operational outlays add up quickly.

"A CT scan is faster, and we can do it on site," Schropp said. "But before surgery, if we need a better idea and location for what we're looking at, sometimes we just need MRIs. When we refer our patients to someone like Jaime, we can direct the scan and read the results to get her opinion. I venture to say 25 percent of the surgeries we do could benefit from a MRI, but not all get it in."

The distance between Central Point and Ashland diminishes the number of MRI trips, she said. "A lot of people just don't want to wait."

Other than cost and scheduling, the biggest hurdle involves anesthesia.

"A lot of times they can't stay still, or even keep quiet," Schropp said. "Even if the scan is 30 seconds to a few minutes, they have to be perfectly still."

Sage has worked with zoos, read MRIs for parrots and other small animals, but exotic animals tend not to deal with anesthesia as well as dogs and cats.

"With certain species, if the pet is under anesthesia, they may be at risk," she said.

Beyond the pure mechanics and biological elements, emotional factors carry weight in decision-making. The roughly $1,700 cost sometimes makes the decision for pet owners, but not always.

Sage said the animals tend to be in the geriatric range.

"You might think that people who are well off will do it, but that's not always the case," Sage said. "Sometimes people are spending their last dollar; people who just love their animals are more willing."

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or Follow him on Twitter at or

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