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5 Common Conditions Found on a Pet’s Abdominal Ultrasound

veterinarian and veterinary technician performing ultrasound on dog, abdominal ultrasound, veterinary ultrasound at Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota

At Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota, we frequently perform ultrasounds on pets in both ER and Specialty medicine. The reason? Ultrasounds provide more detailed views of a pet’s abdominal organs and the abdominal cavity. These findings greatly affect a veterinarian’s therapeutic or diagnostic decisions. Our board-certified veterinary radiologists perform and interpret many pet ultrasounds at AERC and today, we’re sharing the five most common conditions discovered through a pet’s abdominal ultrasound – and a few secrets as to what a radiologist sees to determine the diagnosis!

Two images of abdominal ultrasound findings. The left ultrasound shows an ultrasound of a young dog that shows a small intestinal foreign body (a knotted rope toy) causing an obstruction. The upper margin is bright, with strong dark shadowing deep to the structure. The right ultrasound is the same dog's ultrasound also shows a bright, thin tubular structure - we incidentally found round worm parasites in this dog's intestines - which was confirmed in surgery. Both ultrasounds from Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota.

1. Gastroenteritis or Foreign Body Obstructions 

Gastroenteritis is the inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms such as vomiting, decreased appetite, and diarrhea are the most common reasons for a pet needing an abdominal ultrasound.  

What the Radiologist Sees:  

  • Brightness of the gastrointestinal walls 
  • Thickening, abnormal layers. 
  • Decreased motility (spontaneous movement). 
  • An ultrasound can also rule out presence of foreign material and obstruction, a mass/tumor, or other conditions that require immediate attention such as surgery or endoscopy (a scope used to retrieve gastric foreign bodies or to acquire samples for biopsies) 

What if a Foreign Body is Spotted? 

Foreign bodies are diagnosed less often via ultrasound, but still commonly. After all, random objects are often pretty noticeable during an ultrasound! Common foreign bodies include trash, toys, small pieces of clothing such as socks or underwear, carpet, or pieces of string.  

What the Radiologist Sees: 

  • Irregular structures in the openings of the gastrointestinal tract. 
  • Bright appearance in the margin. 
  • Dark shadowing deeper to the structure. 
  • Significant dilation (wider or larger) from obstruction leading up to the object  

An ultrasound of an adult dog that shows gallbladder mucocele (a thick gelatinous bile) causing inflammation & possible rupture that results in severe liver and peritoneal inflammation. Ultrasound provided by Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota.

2. Liver Inflammation  

When a dog or cat has abnormal liver values, an ultrasound is needed to localize the disease and to determine if it’s acute inflammation, chronic inflammation, or cancer.  

What the Radiologist Sees: 

  • When the diagnosis is inflammation and infectious diseases:
    • Mixed/hazy appearance
    • Enlargement and rounding, thickening of the gallbladder, bile ducts, and nodules (a growth of abnormal tissue). 
  • When the diagnosis is liver cancer: 
    • Large masses 
    • Regions of mineral or fluid pocketing
    • General organ enlargement 

3. Spleen Disorders

Everyone seems to be familiar with “the spleen” – yet a lot of people don’t really know what it does. The spleen is a large tongue-like organ which acts as a large lymph node, and although pets can live without their spleen, it does have an important role! The spleen is the site of production and clearance of blood – so think of it like the body’s internal blood bank.   

What the Radiologist Sees: 

  • Signs of reactivity due to immune stimulation  
  • Red blood cell production in the form of nodules (a growth of abnormal tissue) or haziness.  
  • More significant diseases include large and complex masses often at risk for life-threatening bleeding, which can be:
    • Cancerous (commonly vascular cancer like hemangiosarcoma)
    • Benign but still significant (such as hematoma – a collection of blood outside the blood vessels) 

Two images of abdominal ultrasound findings. The left is An ultrasound of an adult dog that shows a bright kidney with fluid around the kidney (dark rim) due to acute kidney injury from leptospirosis infection. The right is An ultrasound of a young dog that shows a severely irregular and bright kidney with abnormal detail and moderate central urine dilation due to renal dysplasia (congenital deformity of the kidneys). Both ultrasounds from Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota.

4. Kidney and Bladder Disease 

Varying degrees of kidney degeneration are commonly seen, often incidentally, on ultrasound. Otherwise, if a pet shows signs of kidney dysfunction on bloodwork, an ultrasound will be performed to evaluate what’s going on with your pet’s kidneys. Additionally, since kidneys are an important part of the urinary tract, an ultrasound can also help identify bladder problems.  

What the Radiologist Sees: 

  • Chronic kidney changes include:
    • Small size
    • Irregular margins
    • Mineral or fibrotic foci (bright specks)
    • Stone formation
    • Decreased detail 
  • Acute kidney disease from infection or toxicity often shows:
    • Brightness throughout the kidney
    • Abnormal dilation 
    • Surrounding inflammation in the form of bright fat and fluid around the kidney 
  • Kidney cancer is seen uncommonly, but will present as a mass or nodule significantly distorting the normal tissues 
  • Common urinary bladder disease often shows:
    • Signs of abnormal particles in the urine (crystals, infection, blood)
    • Smooth to mildly irregular wall thickening in pets with sterile inflammatory disease of infection
    • Very abnormal wall thickening with possible mineralization in pets with bladder cancer 

5. Adrenal Diseases 

Adrenal glands produce a variety of hormones in the body such as adrenaline, as well as the steroids aldosterone and cortisol. When the adrenal glands aren’t functioning properly, they can cause an overproduction or underproduction of hormones. This can lead to symptoms such as abnormal thirst, excessive urination, excessive eating, weight gain, and hair loss, as well as changes in blood pressure and blood sugar. 

What the Radiologist Sees: 

  • Adrenal lesions are so commonly seen in dogs, the term “incidentaloma” has been used for the infamous small nodules observed. 
  • Older dogs frequently develop small nodules which can represent:
    • Benign hyperplasia (benign growth of tissue)
    • A benign type of tumor called an adenoma – which may or may not be abnormally secreting hormones  
  • When both adrenal glands similarly enlarge, this is usually due to pituitary disease (Cushing’s Disease or hyperadrenocorticism) providing excess stimulation to the adrenal glands.  
  • When both adrenal glands are abnormally small, this is usually:
    • An auto-immune disorder destroying the adrenal glands (Addison’s Disease or hypoadrenocorticism)
    • Or the pet has been receiving high doses of steroid medication long-term that is resulting in adrenal atrophy.  
  • Occasionally seen are malignant tumors in the adrenal glands which can result in abnormal hormone secretion or invade into regional large blood vessels or the kidneys.  

veterinarian examining a cat at veterinary clinic, veterinary medicine, Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota

These five groups of common ultrasound findings are just a few of the many things our radiologists can see and diagnose on ultrasound. Following an ultrasound, veterinarians have additional detailed information to provide treatment options, recommend additional diagnostics such as biopsy or specific blood tests, or surgery. If you have questions or concerns about your pet’s health or ultrasound findings, consult with your family veterinarian to learn more.    

Learn more about Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota’s Radiology Service here 

More Reading:

Jon Nevins, DVM, DACVR

Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota, Fast Track Triage, color-coded triage system, pet emergency, Twin Cities emergency vet, Minnesota emergency vet, Saint Paul emergency vet, Oakdale emergency vet

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