X-rays are one of the most effective ways to see what is going on inside objects, including living creatures. With the right equipment and conditions, x-rays allow us to diagnose many different health problems.
X-rays are a bit like high-energy beams of light, and all of that energy allows them to go through most objects, like light going through a shadow puppet screen. This way, we get an image with the outlines of organs and other structures inside the body. If two structures are very similar, their outlines merge together. Unfortunately, even small movements can make things blurry. Despite this, information obtained from x-rays is often valuable and even life-saving.
What it’s for
What are x-rays for?
X-rays are useful when you need to obtain information about the shape, size, and contents of internal organs or structures. Common things you can check with an x-ray include:
- If air can get into the lungs
- Congestion in the lungs
- Size and shape of the heart
- Masses or lumps inside the chest
- Size and position of the stomach
- Dilation and content of the intestines
- Presence of a stone, bone or other hard object inside the intestines
- Shape and size of the liver, kidneys, uterus, bladder, prostate
- Stones in the bladder
Limbs and spine:
- Broken or displaced bones
- Bone spurs or deformations
- Swelling, damage or fluid in joints
- Tooth root disease
- Tooth or jaw fractures.
How it’s done
How are x-rays actually done?
Sedation or anaesthesia is usually needed to prevent movement and obtain useful images. It also prevents staff exposure to x-rays, as even tiny amounts can build up over time and potentially cause serious health problems.
Several other precautions must be taken for x-rays to provide useful information and to avoid diagnostic mistakes
- The pet usually needs to be in a very specific position so you can see the structure you are looking at as clearly as possible. Some positions are very awkward and uncomfortable, and this is another reasons sedation or anaesthesia is required.
- The pet is placed on a special table, with the beam of x-rays coming from a machine above them and a film or sensor under them to receive the information
- The x-ray machine is activated for a fraction of a second, like a camera taking a photo.
- The information received on the film or sensor is then transmitted to a computer and examined.
- If more information is required, the pet is then re-positioned and another image is taken. At least two images are usually required for each part of the body or structure.
In specific situations, such as severe breathing problems or major trauma (road traffic accident or fall from height), x-rays may be taken without sedation. These show much less detail but may help in managing some emergencies.
How much does an x-ray cost?
The cost of an x-ray will be very different depending on the quality of the equipment used, the staff required and their training, as well as costs in the area such as rent and electricity.
- There is a wide range of x-ray equipment and technologies available, and this will affect the price and quality of the image. Typical prices for veterinary x-ray equipment are around £20-30k.
- Considerable time and skill are involved in placing the pet in the right position to get the best information. This usually requires several trained people working together.
- The cost of medications for sedation or anaesthesia, as well as the cost of having a nurse or vet monitoring the pet throughout the procedure and during recovery, is also added.
- Some types of x-rays may be more difficult to interpret and the opinion of an expert in the field may be needed, as happens in the NHS when a Radiologist reads an x-ray together with the attending physician.
What are the risks of taking x-rays?
Taking an x-ray involves exposure to a tiny amount of radiation (less than what you receive during a transatlantic flight); this is not dangerous to the patient, but it could be to people staying in the room with multiple patients, and regulations prohibit the vet staff from staying in the room (with a few exceptions).
Any sedation or anaesthesia involves risk (one recent study found a rate of 14 deaths per 10000 procedures) and this is always weighed against the expected benefits of the procedure. On the other end, trying to treat a pet without all the necessary information can also lead to complications and unnecessary suffering. Please discuss any concerns with your vet.
Recovery tips for dogs who had x-rays taken
After a sedation or anaesthetic your pet is likely going to be quite sleepy and need to rest. Keep them in a quiet and comfortable environment if possible. They may also need help staying warm, a cozy blanket may help. You may need to keep an eye on them to make sure they are recovering well.
When to worry
When to worry about your dog who had x-rays taken
Speak to a vet straight away if your dog is:
- Becoming less responsive
- Having any breathing changes after any procedure involving sedation or anaesthesia.
If you’re unsure, vets in the Joii app can give you further advice.