Thermography for Dogs: Benefits & Misconceptions

By Kat Kuczynska

Thermography has become a popular imaging option that is easily accessible to dog owners without the need for a veterinary referral– and has fast become a problem for veterinary practices as the technology is unregulated and therefore difficult to control.

Thermal screening services are often carried out by technicians who use a wide range of imaging technology, making it increasingly difficult for dog owners to select which service they should use. Equipment can now vary from thermal cameras that fit on the back of smart phone to clinical grade imaging equipment used in human medicine. Image interpretation by veterinary surgeons generally does not come standard as dogs are often imaged in less than perfect screening environments. Nevertheless, clients are still proactively sourcing “thermographers” to investigate lameness or subtle changes before calling their vet. Many dog owners do not understand what the technology is detecting and, more importantly, its limitations, before outsourcing services. Raising awareness, expanding research and educating the industry is now a challenge for many veterinary professionals.

Misconceptions

The biggest misconception for dog owners is that thermography is a standalone test that will provide a diagnosis while avoiding expensive vet bills… but in reality, thermography is not a standalone diagnostic– it will provide an indication rather than a diagnosis and areas of concerns will normally warrant further targeted investigation. To use this technology correctly there first needs to be an understanding of its benefits and limitations before deciding if it should be used as part of a clinical evaluation or treatment plan.

Thermology measures the autonomic nervous system and detects physiological (functional) abnormalities and can graphically record inflammatory and neurological processes, all helpful information when data is collected and interpreted accurately. “Hot spots” are irrelevant to a point– the interpretation of this technology is all about pattern (pathology) recognition, temperature differential and comparative studies, coupled with extensive veterinary experience.

Interpretation

Many aspects must come together to achieve accurate and reliable results, and, just like all other diagnostic tests, thermography results should be interpreted and reported on by trained veterinary surgeons who can reliably factor previous and current clinical signs into their analysis of images. Thermography is a test of physiology, so without an in-depth knowledge of the autonomic nervous system the correct analysis can be difficult. Owners wouldn’t expect their dog’s x-rays or MRI scan to be reported on by anyone other than a vet and thermography should be no different.

To achieve the most accurate results the technology used for testing should be of the highest clinical specificity designed for physiological imaging, and data collection should be carried out by experienced technicians under veterinary referral. If clients do not want to investigate results further or work with their vet, then this will become the biggest limitation. Thermography cannot see structure (anatomy) so without the use of additional diagnostics or examination the ability to correlate findings and confirm a diagnosis is limited.

In most cases dynamic testing should be carried out, as one of the main benefits of imaging physiology is that things change, and dysfunction can be well highlighted when the body is put under physiological stress. Imaging dogs without exercise can limit reliability of results but is, unfortunately, commonly seen in the industry. Exercising patients (dependent on veterinary advice) induces reactions, which very often help to confirm or rule out primary pathology and provide a better understanding of whether a problem is exercise induced. Images should be collected pre and post exercise and in controlled environments.

Benefits

There are many benefits to using thermology to assist diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation. As the technology identifies inflammatory and neurological processes, one of its main clinical benefits is when it is used to non-invasively locate the potential source of lameness. Dogs can be imaged in a short space of time without the need for sedation. Numerous injuries, diseases and conditions can be identified and monitored. Services are now available through many veterinary practices and, if referred, costs can be covered by insurance. The technology is cost effective as full body assessments with dynamic testing and veterinary interpretation are available for as little as £250.

Physiological imaging is a powerful tool when used correctly in specialist areas of medicine or as an adjunctive imaging modality. If owners source the service from their local vet, the technology will have a positive influence on the investigation and ultimately diagnosis.

Joint related conditions – how can thermography assist?

Thermology detects the inflammatory processes that are produced when physiological changes start to occur in a joint, the technology can assist veterinary surgeons in the identification of both early stage and chronic joint disease. Degenerative changes are often the cause of lameness, but structural imaging may not contribute to the investigation in the initial stages, it can be challenging for vets to encourage further or more expensive diagnostics particularly when x-ray or ultrasound have been performed to an avail. As thermology is non-invasive, sedation free and offers affordable function testing it can support the use of further diagnostics and earlier treatment. Using the technology to review joints that are difficult to image with x-ray or ultrasound has proven beneficial to many vets and has helped warrant targeted investigation. Assisting in isolating elbow or stifle pathology is another reason many practices have utilised this imaging. Most importantly, many dogs are now having targeted investigations with less discomfort and a prompt treatment.

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