If you share your home with a dog, chances are they’ve needed an X-ray, or your vet has suggested dog X-rays during a dental procedure or as part of routine care for senior dogs. There is a lot veterinarians can learn about a dog’s health through imaging.
In 1895, a German scientist named Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen discovered X-rays, and forever changed the way we diagnose and treat both humans and animals. He realized that electromagnetic radiation in the form of X-ray beams created an image of internal structures when passed through objects and were absorbed at different rates.
Today, veterinarians use X-rays to diagnose a variety of diseases and conditions. Let’s take a closer look at dog X-rays and explain what they are, how they work, what they’re used for, and what they generally cost.
What is an X-ray?
A radiograph, which is commonly called an X-ray, is a two-dimensional black, white, and grey image that gives us an internal view of the body. In veterinary medicine, we can see bones, organs, and other internal structures. (Editorial note: It is a common misconception that the pictures taken are called X-rays. They are actually called radiographs that are taken using an X-ray beam. However, for the purpose of this article, we will default to the more commonly used term “X-ray” when describing images.)
An X-ray beam passes through the subject and the electromagnetic waves of the beam get absorbed by different structures at varying degrees (1). Bone absorbs X-ray beams much more than air, therefore bone shows up as white on X-ray images and air shows up as black. Organs all vary with the degree of absorption, which helps outline each structure displayed on the X-ray.
If your dog ate a rock, or even a rubber duckie (true story), you will be able to see those objects outlined on X-rays of a dog’s abdomen due to the different absorption rates of the objects versus the organs.
Difference Between a Dog X-Ray and Dog Ultrasound
X-rays differ from other imaging modalities, such as ultrasound, which is used to look inside soft tissue structures of the body. Ultrasound uses soundwave technology to create an image of the organ of interest. It is used to look mainly at soft tissue structures versus bone. Veterinarians perform ultrasounds to get a picture of individual organs in better detail, and can help decipher between soft tissue structures, masses, and fluid. It is used in conjunction with X-rays to get a full picture of what could be going on with your pet.
An echocardiogram is similar to an ultrasound, and has the ability to look inside the heart at the different chambers, vessels, and heart values that are working in real time.
Why Do Dogs Need X-rays?
There are many reasons that your veterinarian may recommend X-rays. These include:
- Trauma (being hit by car, other injury, or a dog fight)
- Abnormal blood work
- Coughing or hacking
- Upset stomach (vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, no appetite)
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Cancer staging
- Metabolic disease (such as diabetes or Cushing’s Disease)
- Extreme lethargy
- Dental disease
For example, an abdominal X-ray is advised when your dog is vomiting or not eating. There could be a foreign object they ingested causing the stomach upset!
If your dog is coughing, taking X-rays may be part of the veterinary work up. Chest x-rays can reveal abnormalities of the lungs, such as bronchitis, pneumonia, or even a mass, which can help your veterinarian decide the best course of action for your dog.
If your veterinarian hears a heart murmur during a routine exam, chances are they will advise taking chest X-rays to look at the size of the heart and associated structures.
If a pet comes in limping, X-rays of the affected limb(s) are taken to look for broken bones, arthritis, hairline fractures, or other causes.
For our older dogs, routine senior care includes bloodwork and X-rays to look for any change in size of organs, any masses, and arthritis. We can get ahead of issues if they are found early, and set up our dogs for a better quality of life in their golden years.
Types of Dog X-rays
Each region of the body warrants a different view for a proper X-ray. The smaller the focal region of an X-ray image, the better detail it will show. This helps the veterinarian decipher abnormalities that are located in that area of interest.
The most common types of dog X-rays include:
- Chest X-rays
- Abdominal X-rays
- Joint X-rays (hip, spine, wrists, elbows)
- X-rays of the limbs
- Dental X-rays
Dental X-rays use a specialized X-ray machine to take images of your dog’s teeth, tooth roots, jaw bone, and associated structures. Dental X-rays are usually digital, just like human dental X-rays. Dogs need to be sedated for dental X-rays because if they move at all it distorts the image. Dental X-rays are usually done during a dental procedure, when a dog is already asleep under general anesthesia.
Dental X-rays aid in assessing what’s below the surface of the tooth, which could reveal infection, bone loss, reabsorption of the tooth, cracked roots, dentigerous cysts, or even jaw bone involvement.
What to Expect During a Dog X-ray
To obtain a dog X-ray, at least two veterinary team members will assist in getting the image. Your dog will be brought into the X-ray room, and the team members will position your pet for the proper view. Positioning is very important for a correct and accurate view.
For example, to do a full dog chest X-ray, we need two to three views of the chest to get a proper image. The dog will lay on their right side, left side, and in a soft padded v-shaped holder to obtain a front-to-back image of the chest. Taking the image itself only takes a few seconds, but positioning the animal and holding them can take a lot longer! Even the slightest movement can blur the x-ray.
There is a separate room in veterinary clinics designed specifically for taking X-rays. The room minimizes the exposure of electromagnetic rays to other personnel and animals in the clinic. The technicians and veterinarians performing X-rays wear lead vests, thyroid shields, and gloves to decrease their exposure to radiation.
Pet parents are not allowed into the X-ray room at the time of taking the images due to safety regarding radiation exposure. Plus, many dogs are too excited with their parents in the room! This prolongs the time it takes to get a quality image, so pet parents are kindly asked to wait outside while veterinarians or veterinary technicians complete the imaging.
Most X-rays do not require sedation, but if we are assessing any fractures, ligament tears, or painful conditions, the dog will benefit from sedation and pain control in order to get a proper look at what we are imaging. Sedation can also help an extremely anxious or aggressive pet get home sooner. The faster and clearer X-ray image we can get, the quicker the pet and their family can go home.
Dog X-ray Cost
Dog X-rays usually start around $200, and increase from there depending on how many images are needed. For example, chest X-rays and hip X-rays require multiple images. Each hip should be evaluated from the side and front view, and many times images of the hip in a flexed or extended view are needed to assess if the hip joint is working properly.
Pet insurance can help cover the costs of tests and imaging, such as X-rays, ultrasound, CT scans, or MRIs, so be sure to check with your insurance company. Care Credit, a credit card you can apply for, is also sometimes used to help cover unexpected pet health costs such as X-rays.
I always advise pet parents to start a savings account for their pet’s care, so they have money saved up in case something unforeseen happens. It pays to be prepared!