Your pet needs X-rays. Your vet takes the X-rays. Here is a common conversation that might follow:
Vet: “I’d like to send Dodo’s X-rays out for a radiology consult.”
Client: “Why? Don’t you know how to read X-rays?”
Vet: “Well, yes, but I am worried about a certain area and would like an expert opinion from a board-certified radiologist.”
Client: “Hmmm. How much does that cost?”
Vet: “It could be $75 to $125 generally, but it’s well worth it.” (Don’t quote me on price. Where you live and where the X-rays are sent for referral make a difference.)
X-rays = rads = radiographs = films. These terms are interchangeable.
When vets or physicians talk about looking at X-rays, we often discuss it as “reading the films.” Radiologists read or interpret the films and write an opinion about what they see.
Veterinary radiologists are veterinarians who complete veterinary school and then go on to do a radiology residency for several years.
Many of them have done years of general practice as well. They then sit for a rigorous board exam to become boarded in veterinary radiology.
These dedicated veterinarians are also specialists in advanced imaging such as ultrasound, CT scans and MRIs. There are subspecialties as well, just like in human medicine, where a veterinary radiologist might specialize in, for example, radiation oncology.
A radiologist can help the general practitioner in not only reading the films but also suggesting more films be taken if necessary or suggesting that advanced imaging would be the next step.
Why Your Hometown Vet Can’t Read All X-Rays
- All general practice veterinarians receive training in reading X-rays in veterinary school.
- Most of us take many, many X-rays over the years in practice and get better and better at interpreting them.
- The interpretation of X-rays and the subtleties in a radiograph require a highly trained eye and years of experience.
- Some radiographs and some cases are more challenging than others, and a consult can be incredibly helpful.
Differences Between Human and Veterinary Medicine and X-Rays
Most people never really think about the difference between when they might get an X-ray taken for their own medical issue and when their pet has an X-ray taken. So here goes.
Human medicine: You are often sent to another floor or another building, and your X-rays are taken by a technician. They are then sent to a radiologist for interpretation.
Vet medicine: Your vet is often highly involved in the process, taking the films with technicians, and the X-rays often happen in your vet’s office right away.
Human medicine: Your X-rays are sent to a radiologist. Your doctor, surgeon or internist order the X-rays but are not responsible for reading them. The radiologist reads and interprets the films, writes an opinion and sends the report back to your referring doctor.
Vet medicine: Your vet is usually looking at those films right away and then determines what to do next. That’s when we might ask for a radiology consult if the case is very complicated, the X-rays are puzzling or confusing, or we just need some guidance on what to do next.
All X-Rays Are Not the Same
- Many X-rays are easier to read than others. Often, your vet may feel completely competent in reading a film. In other cases, they want an expert’s opinion.
- An X-ray to check the severity of a leg or pelvic fracture, for example, is less complicated than thoracic (chest), some abdominal or joint X-rays.
- It is very easy to have an expert radiologist look at films because digitalization allows us to send any X-ray anywhere at any time.
- Radiology consults are easy to do, and a radiologist’s interpretation is quick and very helpful.
- The fee for a radiology consult will vary from hospital to hospital but is usually reasonable.
Taking X-Rays Is an Art
I may be airing some dirty veterinary laundry here, but let’s face it: Your local vet can get very busy and we’re often trying to take care of many pets in an hour or a day, often like an emergency room. I may take films in a hurry, see what I need to see and move on.
If I am sending those films out for a radiology consult, however, because I think your pet can benefit from an expert radiologist’s opinion, I am going to make sure those films are the best I can take.
Taking a film of a squiggly-wiggly or a fractious wacko is not easy! We also have to be extremely careful that we take care of the humans involved and follow intense caution about X-ray exposure. Some states require the human not to be in the room, requiring sedation for a pet’s X-rays.
- Excellent quality. Since most of us have digital X-rays, quality is usually excellent.
- Good positioning. Wrangling with an animal on an X-ray table is a challenge. To get excellent films, we might have to use a safe and mild sedative or tranquilization.
- All appropriate views. If I am sending out chest radiographs, for example, I know the radiologist will expect at least 3 views. To be honest, if we are sending films out for a consult, we want to get it right the first time and not get a reprimand from the radiologist that our films are not acceptable.
- Lastly, most veterinary radiologists will look at more films at no charge if they have questions about our X-rays, the positioning, the technique or the views.
Honestly, in an ideal veterinary world, every film would be read by a radiologist.
But this is the real world. Your local vet is a “vet of all trades,” but this doesn’t mean we are expert in every veterinary medical field out there. If your vet is asking you to get a radiology consult, it’s important, necessary and well worth the money.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Sept. 12, 2018.