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MRI Goes to the Dogs

Moose, an Australian Sheepdog mix from Vienna, has been limping for the past six months. Moose has seen veterinarians several times, but no one has been able to pinpoint the problem. His owner, Raquel Tellez, has treated him with hot pads and she is hoping the problem will go away, but she doesn’t know what else to do.

So after she heard that pet MRI examinations are being offered at the new Iams Pet Imaging Center, along Maple Avenue, she said she is planning to investigate further.

“I’m definitely taking him,” Tellez said.

Then she thought a little longer, and considered the price. The cost of a pet MRI varies, but averages about $1,200.

“What’s the price point for your dog, that’s the question,” Tellez said.

Dr. Dan Carey, a veterinarian and director of technical communications in the Iams Research and Development Division, admitted that the price of pet MRI is a little steep. But, he said, there are many pet owners in the Washington, D.C. area interested in MRI testing.

“People who have pets, who are seeking help from a neurological specialist, even if pet imaging is not available they would seek expensive testing anyway,” Carey said.

The imaging center, which has been open for almost a month, features a new machine specially designed for pets. It was manufactured by Siemens and designed by Proscan, an MRI technology company. Because an MRI patient needs to stay motionless for long periods of time, the pets are anesthetized for the procedure. The center employs a board-certified veterinary anesthesiologist. Carey said most of the patients have been cats or dogs, but they have had a few unusual visitors.

“We had a boa constrictor with a bone infection in his back and we had an iguana with little abscesses in several places,” Carey said.

MRI, OR MAGNETIC Resonance Imaging, uses magnetic energy and radio waves to create images of internal tissue. An MRI is more detailed than other tests, such as X-rays or ultrasound. The test is used to identify conditions such as cancer and orthopedic injuries. Carey said an MRI will often determine the problem when other testing is inconclusive. The doctor recounted one case in which a veterinarian gave a dog an ultrasound, and thought there might be something going on in the area of the adrenal gland, but couldn’t be sure.

“After doing an evaluation by MRI, he could tell it was definitely adrenal,” Carey said. “There are also two types of tumors that develop in the adrenal gland. One is benign and one is malignant. He could see that this dog was benign. Now he is undergoing medication.”

The center is the first to be open to the public and to be used specifically for pets. Veterinarians will sometimes use hospital MRI machines at night, when they are no longer occupied by humans. And some veterinary centers maintain their own, private MRI centers. But any veterinarian can schedule a procedure at the new Iams center.

Dr. Chuck Blevins, who works at the Oakton-Vienna Veterinary Hospital, said the hospital has referred a “couple” of animals to the imaging center, which is next door to the hospital. He said pet owners display a whole range of emotions when given the option of an MRI.

“Some people say, ‘An MRI on a dog, you’ve got to be kidding,’” Blevins said. “Others say, ‘This dog is a family member.’ In that case the pet gets the same care as a husband or wife or grandmother.”

Blevins had one client, an older man, “whose dog was his whole life.” The man had the money to spare, and scheduled an MRI. The dog was diagnosed with cancer.

“[The MRI] may not extend the dog’s life,” Blevins said. “But now the owner knows. He really needed to know.”

BLEVINS SAID VETERINARY medicine is starting, more and more, to resemble human medicine. He will often see pets with health insurance plans (some of which partially fund MRI procedures). And he has been prescribing anti-depressant medication for some time.

“When I first started putting animals on anti-depressants, people thought I was nuts,” Blevins said. “Now it’s normal.”

And even though he has seen many recent advances in veterinary medicine, Blevins was a “little surprised” when the imaging center opened.

“They put a fortune into it,” he said. “I didn’t expect it in this area. We will see if they can afford to make it work. It will be sort of a test case.”

The center is Iams’ first commercial venture aside from making dog food. Blevins expects the center to attract customers from throughout the mid-Atlantic area, and from as far away as New York. Pilar Zamora, from Fairfax, said she would use the center “in a heartbeat” if her German Shepherd, Luca, needed the treatment. She said she spends $65 a session for chiropractic care on Luca.

“It is crazy, but still I would do it,” Zamora said, referring to the imaging procedure. “He’s like a kid.”