Diagnostic imaging plays an enormous role in the diagnosis and treatment of disease in both human and veterinary medicine. In fact, imaging technology has advanced to such an extent over recent years that medical practitioners are now able to diagnose and treat a range of conditions that had been difficult to detect in the past.

One such advancement is the use of PET scans. Unlike X-rays, CT scans and MRIs, which show changes in anatomy, a PET scan can reveal physiological changes, enabling the early detection and diagnosis of a wide range of diseases through anatomical mapping, including cancer, heart disease, and disorders of the brain.

And this technology is not just reserved for humans; PET scans are becoming significantly popular in veterinary medicine, too. Read on to find out answers to questions like, “What is a PET scan?”, “What is a PET scan used for”, and “What are the advantages of using this technology?”.


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What Is a PET Scan?

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) is a type of imaging technology used to evaluate tissues and organs at a cellular level. A PET scan produces detailed three-dimensional images of the inside of the body which can be used to detect any abnormalities and highlight how well certain bodily functions are working

A PET scan requires the use of a special dye with radioactive tracers which is injected and absorbed by biologically active cells. The patient is then placed in a tunnel-like device that is able to detect and translate the emitted radiation into three-dimensional images. These tracers are then able to reveal the metabolic and biochemical function of tissues and organs. This makes them capable of detecting diseases and identifying their severity before they show up on other imaging tests, such as Computerised Tomography (CT) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). PET scans are therefore an invaluable tool in the early detection of certain conditions and diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and disorders of the brain (such as seizures).


What Is a PET Scan Used For?

So, what is a PET scan used for, exactly?

A traditional CT scan creates a detailed still image of your animal’s organs, bones, and tissues. A PET scan, on the other hand, shows veterinarians how the tissues in the body work at a cellular level. It can detect areas of absorption (where more chemical activity is occurring in the body), which can be indicative of disease. PET scans can also provide details about how well blood or oxygen travels throughout the body and how well sugar is processed

This means that a PET scan can be used to:

  • Show how the heart is working
  • Locate cancerous cells
  • Examine how the body is reacting to cancer
  • Identify lapses in cognitive function
  • Find an infection
  • Detect brain disorders, including problems with the central nervous system (CNS) and seizures

To perform a PET scan, the animal is injected with a specific amount of a radioactive drug (radiopharmaceutical) designed to target the area of interest. A PET scanner is then used to generate an image from the radiopharmaceutical inside the animal and identify the function of that tissue. This data is then used to help in the diagnosis and treatment of any potential disorders.


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Advantages of Using a PET Scan

We’ve answered the question, “What is a PET scan used for?”. Now let’s take a look at some of the many advantages of using a PET scan to diagnose and treat animals.


Improved Diagnostics

The most obvious advantage of using a PET scan is that it enables improved diagnostic accuracy. For example, Cancer cells show up as bright spots on PET scans because they have a higher metabolic rate than normal cells. This makes tumours much easier to detect than with other forms of imaging, often before the signs and symptoms of the disease are apparent. CT scans and MRIs, in contrast, are usually only able to detect Cancer once the disease has altered the structure of organs or tissues. And this can often be too late for optimum treatment.

Early detection of diseases at the cellular level also gives veterinarians advance notice of complex systemic diseases, such as coronary artery disease (CAD), brain tumours, and seizure disorders. This means that conditions can often be treated before they fully-develop and cause any irreversible, lasting damage.

Another benefit of PET scans in terms of diagnostics is that they can be used in combination with other forms of imaging to provide an even clearer picture of what’s going on inside an animal’s body. For example, a PET scan can be performed at the same time as a CT or MRI scan. This is known as image fusion. Images can be combined to create a three-dimensional image, which provides more information and allows for a more precise diagnosis.


Painless & Non-Invasive

A PET scan is also painless and non-invasive, which is important when you are dealing with animals who don’t understand what is happening. The only discomfort the animal will experience is from the initial injection of the radioactive material (a relatively low dosage which is perfectly safe). Then once the examination is over, the patient requires no recovery time, and they can go home and resume normal activities immediately. 

The PET scan itself usually only takes around 30 minutes and both anatomy and metabolic function can be captured with a single scan in the case of image fusion (a combined PET-CT or PET-MRI scan). This means fewer trips to the veterinary clinic, and less distress for the animal


Enhanced Treatment Plans

Finally, the ultimate benefit of using a PET scan is that it provides you with much better data that can improve the diagnostic process and enable you to offer enhanced care and treatment to your patients. You can detect potential diseases before they have had a chance to develop into more serious conditions, which means you are able to start a course of treatment far sooner than you would if you relied solely on traditional CT scans and X-rays. And this, ultimately, means that you can help more animals and save more lives.


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