Vets are sometimes guilty of dropping things into a conversation without explaining the meaning behind them. One of the things you may have heard mentioned is ‘advanced imaging’. In this blog, we will explore what is meant by advanced imaging and why your pet might need it.

What is advanced imaging?

Advanced imaging describes ways of getting images of your pet’s body, above and beyond standard radiographs (x-rays) and ultrasound scanning. It can provide more detailed images of the inside of the body, helping to aid diagnosis and plan treatments. The most common types of advanced imaging that are used in veterinary medicine are –

MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging)

An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanner creates a magnetic field, which causes the protons in the body’s hydrogen atoms to align. As our bodies contain a high volume of water (H2O) which is made up of hydrogen atoms, there are lots of protons available. The large magnet in the tube-like scanner causes these protons to line up in the same direction with short bursts of radio waves being used to knock the protons back out of alignment.

When the radio waves go off, the protons align again; this sends radio signals which provide information about the location of each proton in the body. This helps to distinguish between different tissue types because the protons all realign at different speeds, producing different signals which are picked up by a receiver. These signals create a detailed image of the inside of the body which can be viewed and interpreted.

Your pet will need to lie still to have good images obtained. So they will need to be anaesthetised for an MRI scan. MRI scans can be used for a variety of conditions; but are most commonly used to image the spinal cord and brain.

CT scan (Computed Tomography)

CT scans are also known as CAT scans or computed tomography scans. The scanner is a ring-like piece of machinery that emits a narrow beam of x-rays that quickly rotate around the entire body. This creates cross-sectional images of the body (like slices of a loaf of bread). Multiple ‘slices’ can be stacked together on the machine’s computer to create a 3D image of the patient allowing for a detailed look inside the body.

As with MRI scans, animals have to lay very still to allow good images to be taken. This will usually require an anaesthetic. “CT boxes” as used in the US are not generally considered acceptable in the UK – Ed. CT scans can be used for a variety of issues. But they’re most commonly used to look at the lungs and abdomen, screening for abnormalities such as tumours. They can also be used to look for joint disease, head trauma and nasal complaints, as well as a variety of other conditions.


Fluoroscopy provides an x-ray movie, allowing us to analyse an animal’s movements. The image looks similar to an x-ray but can be played and replayed like a movie, instead of a single static 2D image. As such, animals are not anaesthetised for this procedure. Instead, they sit or stand in a box that keeps them in the right place but allows them to move. A machine is used to create a continuous x-ray beam and the images recorded.

This can be useful when trying to analyse things like the movement of the heart and lungs or the swallowing action of your pet. As such, your pet may even be fed whilst in the box so that we can catch images of the way their food passes down their oesophagus (food pipe).

Why might my pet need advanced imaging?

Your pet may need advanced imaging if your vet wants to make a definitive diagnosis but is unable to do so with more standard imaging like x-rays and ultrasound scans. Advanced imaging allows for a more detailed look at the body and can detect things that more standard imaging can’t. For example, certain spinal conditions cannot be seen on standard 2D x-rays, the level of detail is just not there. By performing advanced imaging, the correct course of treatment or surgery can be advised.

Where can my pet access advanced imaging?

Advanced imaging is available at many referral centres. Most first opinion practices cannot afford such expensive pieces of equipment and don’t have the large caseload to warrant having a scanner of their own. Plus, these machines tend to be quite sizeable; many small practices just couldn’t dedicate the space to house them.

Your vet will be able to advise you of your nearest referral centre, as well as arrange for your pet to be seen there.

How much does advanced imaging cost?

Costs vary depending on the type of imaging recommended, and how much of the body needs to be scanned. As mentioned previously, anaesthetics are required for some of this imaging, and there will be associated hospitalisation fees. The prices charged need to help cover the purchase of these expensive bits of equipment, the upkeep and repair of them, as well as for the training of the specialist staff that use them.

Sadly, this means the cost can be prohibitive for some owners. Pet insurance can help guard against unexpected vet bills and is always well worth considering before your pet becomes unwell.

Advanced imaging describes methods of diagnostic imaging above and beyond standard x-rays and ultrasound scans. Your pet will usually need referring to a specialist veterinary hospital to have these diagnostics performed. Your vet will be able to guide you through the options for your pet, including whether advanced imaging is recommended for your pet’s condition in the first place.

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