When Is Cat Diagnostic Imaging Necessary?

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Based on an article that first appeared at

Navigating the maze of feline health issues can feel like a daunting task, but thankfully, modern veterinary medicine has given us incredible tools to help us along the way. Veterinary Diagnostic Imaging—whether it's X-rays, ultrasounds, or even more advanced technologies—is a game-changer when it comes to understanding what's going on inside your feline friend. It's like having a window into their well-being, offering clues that are invisible to the naked eye. Each of these non-invasive tools has a different purpose and provides important information on your kitty’s health so your veterinarian can make informed recommendations for treatment.

When Do You Use Cat Diagnostic Imaging?

There are many conditions where diagnostic imaging can help your cat. These range from the acute (such as ingestion of a foreign substance or a fracture) to the chronic (such as a heart condition). For example, imagine your cat is vomiting or having trouble breathing. An x-ray will show if your cat may have swallowed something unusual that could impact their breathing or digestion. In other cases, your cat might have a heart problem and an ultrasound could give more information so your veterinarian will be able to make a proper diagnosis.

The Four Types of Veterinary Diagnostic Imaging Are:

X-Rays (Also known as Radiographs)

You’re probably familiar with X-rays from your own healthcare. You know that a focused beam (which you can’t see) takes internal pictures so your healthcare professional can see the internal workings of your body. It works the same way for your cat. X-rays are often the first diagnostic tool used because they give an overview and help your veterinarian know how to proceed.

According to VCA Animal Hospitals, “In the abdomen, many organs can be distinguished and foreign bodies or air trapped within the intestines may often be easily observed. The size and shape of the liver, kidneys, and spleen are often assessed on radiographs.”


Ultrasounds are often a useful complement to x-rays.“An ultrasound is a non-invasive procedure used to evaluate the internal organs. Ultrasound examinations can be used to examine the abdominal organs, heart, eyes and reproductive organs in cats. For many abdominal disorders, both ultrasound and X-rays are recommended for optimal evaluation. The x-ray shows the size, shape, and position of the abdominal contents, and the ultrasound allows the veterinarian to see inside the organs." (Source: PetPlace)

During an ultrasound, a medical professional will use a probe on a specific area of your cat. The probe sends sound waves into your cat, and the resulting echoes create images of your pet's internal organs.

Sick cat in kennel with IV.

MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)

MRI machines are relatively rare in the veterinary world because they’re expensive and require trained professionals. However, in certain contexts, they’re highly useful, especially when it comes to neurological concerns.Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton Massachusetts currently uses MRI for diseases that affect the brain and spine. "These diseases, known as neurological diseases, show a wide array of symptoms and in many cases can be life-threatening. Some symptoms that may prompt your veterinarian to recommend an MRI include seizures, circling, depression and behavioral changes such as aggression. Staggering, paralysis of one or several limbs and spinal pain may also be present."

Cat MRI’s work like human MRI’s. Your cat will need to remain still within a circular structure while pulses of radio waves continuously reverberate off the area in question, allowing your medical professional to see areas of possible fluid or inflammation. For your feline's safety, they will be sedated for an MRI.

CT Scans

"While it’s similar to a traditional X-ray, a computed tomography scan obtains images of slices of a patient, meaning they can go very small and later reconstruct the slices into three-dimensional models of the affected area, according to Dr. Wilfried Mai, an associate professor of veterinary radiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine...This provides excellent detail of the internal anatomy and much more information than a simple radiograph" (Source: PetMD)

Is Diagnostic Imaging Safe for My Cat?

Once again, just as in human medicine, diagnostic imaging is safe for our cats when used correctly. It's important for your veterinary team to evaluate your cat’s health prior to recommending diagnostic tools. As medical professionals, they want what is best for your cat, and diagnostic tools will help them make an improved diagnosis.

Gray cat next to stethoscope.

As an example of how certain diagnostic imaging tools can help, according to The Drake Center, "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 to which the tumor extends into the surrounding muscle tissue. This type of information is very important for a prognosis and treatment plan."

The Wrap Up

The success of these diagnostic methods isn't just about the technology itself; it's about how it's used. Conducting these tests with care, precision, and the expert touch of a qualified veterinarian is critical for accurate results. This means ensuring that your pet is comfortable and still, taking images from multiple angles when needed, and interpreting those images with the utmost expertise. When done correctly, diagnostic imaging can provide invaluable information, enabling early intervention and more effective treatment plans.

So, the next time your vet suggests getting an image taken of your cat's insides, you can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that you're taking a significant step toward maintaining their health and happiness. After all, our pets depend on us to understand them inside and out, and diagnostic imaging helps us do just that. Cheers to many more years of purrs and cuddles!


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