Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: October 31, 2022 by Crystal Uys


Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is one of the most powerful and accurate diagnostic techniques in medicine today, and has become routine in human medicine. For the past ten years, MRI’s have been available for animals. An MRI provides detailed and valuable information without the higher risk involved in invasive procedures such as exploratory surgeries.

MRI’s are considered in the following situations:

  • Brain or spinal cord injuries or abnormalities
  • Futher diagnostics after x-rays or ultrasound are normal, or unclear
  • Lameness
  • Abnormal nasal bleeding, swelling or discharge
  • Chronic ear disease
  • Some foreign bodies

The benefits on an MRI include:

  • Superior visualization of disease in all areas of the body. Bone and soft tissue contrast is 8 times greater than x-rays or CT scans.
  • Early detection
  • Fast and accurate results

I visited the AnimalScan Advanced Veterinary Imaging center just outside of Washington, DC last week, and had a chance to speak with Medical Director Julie Smith, DVM. Of course, my focus was going to be on how MRI’s can benefit cats.

“Only seven to ten percent of our patients are cats,” said Dr. Smith. Sadly, cats are substantially underserved when it comes to veterinary care in general. Studies have shown that dogs are taken to the vet more than twice as often as cats, and Dr. Smith’s statistics certainly reflect that unfortunate trend. The majority of cat cases at the center are seen for neurological issues. Cats are also seen for problems with nasal passages, ears and abdomen.

I asked Dr. Smith to walk me through a typical patient visit. “The first thing we do is try to put the pet’s owner at ease,” she said. “I go out into the waiting room and bring the patient and the owners back into the main treatment area.” Cats are placed on an exam table padded with a bathrug and warm towel, and Smith performs a thorough physical exam while talking to the cat’s owners.

The actual MRI takes about an hour, and since the cat needs to hold completely still through the entire scan, anesthesia is required. Smith asks the owners to leave the treatment room while she and her staff place an intravenous cathether and induce anesthesia. The cat is then hooked up to monitoring equipment, including a heart monitor, blood pressure monitor, and pulse oximiter.

After the cat is positioned inside the magnet (the technical term for the actual MRI machine), Dr. Smith makes sure that all the monitoring devices are attached securely, and that they provide accurate readings. Due to the extrme noise of the magnet, neither she nor her staff can be in the actual room with the patient during the procedure. A dedicated licensed veterinary technician monitors anesthesia from right outside the room. If an animal presents a higher than normal anesthetic risk, a technician and/or Dr. Smith will don hearing protection and stay inside the room with the patient. If there is an anesthetic emergency, the procedure will be terminated early. “If there’s a problem, I will stop the scan immediately and tend to the patient’s needs,” says Smith.


Once the patient is situated inside the magnet, Dr. Smith gives the owner the option to watch the scan through a glass wall. Depending on the size and position of the animal in the magnet, there may not be much to see other than the anesthesia tubes and a securely wrapped “lump” inside the magnet, but I like that they provide this option for pet owners. While it may be upsetting to see your cat hooked up to monitoring equipment and breathing tubes like the kitty in the photo above, it can also give pet parents the peace of mind of being able to be there with their pet, even if they can’t be in the actual room with them.

If referring veterinarians desire, they can watch the scan as it happens from their offices. The scan that was being performed while I was there was being watched by the referring neurologist in an office five miles away, but it could just as easily be watched halfway around the world. Referring veterinarians who don’t want to watch the scan “live” receive a complete report and a disk with the scan’s images. “Most referring specialists like to watch the scan as it’s being performed,” says Dr. Smith.


Once the scan is complete, the pet is moved to a recovery room, where the owner may join the pet until she is awake and coordinated enough to leave. Most pets recover quickly.

The MRI images below were taken of an 11 year old male neutered domestic long haired cat, showing a large brain tumor. “His presenting signs were a 5-month history of progressive behavior change and circling,” says Dr. Smith. ” This tumor was a meningioma and was surgically removed. One month after surgery he was back to his normal self!”


At $1500-1900, this is not an inexpensive procedure, but depending on a pet’s condition, it can save money in the long run by providing an accurate diagnosis without invasive surgery through a painless procedure with same day recovery.

Would you consider an MRI for your cat if it was indicated?

For more information about MRI’s and how they can benefit your pet, please visit AnimalScan Advanced Veterinary Imaging.

All images by AnimalScan and Dr. Smith, used with permission.

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33 Comments on High-tech medicine for your cat: MRI

  1. My cat was diagnosed w a pituitary brain tumor via MRI. Spinal Tap results aren’t in. I was told Radiation, possible surgical removal were my options if I wanted to save him. I asked them if they do pinpoint radiation on CATS? No one knew so the vet tech asked a neurologist and I was given information about CYBERKNIFE and there’s also one clinic getting brand new machine called True Beam which is even better. I’m in NH and the two places I’ve been to are Animal Soecialty in Yonkers NY (see Dr. Horse oh he’s amazing) and now I’m going to veterinary CyberKnife in PA to begin treatment next week because the clinic in Yonkers is getting the TrueBeam machine installed and CyberKnife radiation isn’t available there. It’s expensive. I set up a GoFundMe Page. Total out of pocket is $12k. 4 treatments then we pray. I’ve seen 2 neurologists and they say there’s only a couple doctors who would even attempt to remove a large tumor thru the roof of the mouth and they’re in WA state. If it was a tiny tumor someone might attempt it but not a large tumor so radiation or CyberKnife radiation are the best choices and the best in my research is CyberKnife. The only question I have is since no one knows what type of tumor— would full traditional radiation also kill cells if it has somehow spread in his body? That I do t know. They didn’t find that it’s spread so I’m hoping its benign (non cancerous) and just one tumor in his brain. Oh his symptoms were sleeping more than usual then 2 weeks ago he had a twitch in his face and front paw. Then he got up from a cat nap w no balance 4 days ago. Throughout this he had vet attention and all labs were normal. The vet didn’t miss anything or suspect a brain tumor until his balance was affected. I will try to update you but we proceed with treatment. Jan 10th. 3 treatments with CyberKnife and praying we can stop the tumor. My cat is 10 1/2 male neutered. Since this even pet insurance is a must have.

    • Auto correct– not Dr. Horse. It was Dr. Joeseph. And no clue how that spell checked into horse. Sorry for the confusion.

    • This is the first time I’ve heard of CyberKnife being used for pets. Please keep us updated on your cat’s progress and all my best to both of you!

  2. Hi There,

    I could use some help and advice, if you could… My cat was possibly diagnosed a few months ago with a brain tumor, and the vet that I saw at an speciality hospital wanted to do an mri and I did not have 2,500.00, the vet put him on dexamethasone, to make him comfortable.. he exhibits all of brain tumor symptoms, he is pacing around, eyes dilated, and now hes has been having, less and less of an appetite, it so bad when you can no afford treatment for an animal, and want to help, my beloved lucky is around 14 years old . I have recently found a place that would do an mri for a pretty decent number, I have travel a few hours away to go, I wish I would have known about the place sooner, I was wondering if he is exhibiting these signs now, it may be to late, I do not know if I should attempt to try and go through with the mri, he has been down hill, since being diagnosed with the possible brain tumor… I would like advice on what you think, I know that you can make that choice for me… I hope that he is not suffering, and I am willing to try the mri, but feel that this may be to late… any help or advice would be appreciated.. Thank you for your time.

    • I know this is a difficult decision, Christa, but I can’t answer that for you. Your best approach is to discuss this with the specialist you saw, or one of the doctors at the place you found further away from you. They may be willing to review your cat’s records and do a phone consultation with you to help you make a decision.

      • Thank you so much, it is such a tough choice, I hate to play god. I hope I did not wait to long, this is the worst part of having an animal…. they can not talk for you…Thank you.

    • Neurologist requested my cat have an MRI done on a community cat’s brain. They stated $3,000 and change and an additional $1000 for spinal fluid. This is a lot to spend for a community can, never less I don’t have the funds. I live in South Florida and is trying desperately to get grant, gofund ect. to help this cat. Does anyone know of an affordable place in South Florida to get an MRI done for the cat? Just a good neighbor trying to help this cat

  3. My cat is 16 and slowing down. Blood tests OK vet wants to do MRI. I am 81. Mother lived to be 104. Must save for my own health. Should I feel guilty for not spending $ on cat?

  4. I live in Oakland,california,i have had my cat pepper for 7 of late pepper is eating everything in sight,but then laying down,not active does not scrap and play with his brother (chance) anymore. I do not want pepper to suffer ! I know pwpper needs a mri/x-ray or something as he is not himself,if he is suffering I will put him down I am not selfish like that. we did take him to the vet all blood work came back fine. what is next ??? and can you recommend someplace that will not put us in the poor house to get the above procedures done ???

    • I don’t know any veterinarians in the Oakland, CA area, but since it’s a big urban area, you should have plenty of options for referral and specialty practices there. At a minimum, you’re going to want to do x-rays and possibly an ultrasound – which your regular vet may be able to do. Beyond that, most likely, a referral to an internal medicine specialist. Your vet should be able to give you a referral. All my best to both of you.

  5. My 8 year old neutered male is having a MRI tomorrow. It is costing $2,500. The neurologist said if it is not diagnostic, then he will do a spinal puncture while the cat is still anesthetized. Not sure how much that will be. However, two previous vets can not find a cause for his weakness, temp., and occasional respiratory difficulties. The hospital in which he is now being treated has every specialty and sub-specialty as a human hospital. They are very caring and call me often to give me updates. If anyone can help him, I believe they can. I live about an hour north of Tampa and the vet hospital is in Tampa, FL.

  6. Last year, I got an MRI for my dog. Several years ago, I had an MRI done for my cat (now deceased).

    In both cases the MRI revealed extremely clear and valuable information that allowed myself and my vet to know how to proceed.

    Having had the expense of an MRI (and spinal surgery) for my dog just last October, I hope none of my other pets requires one for a very long time. I’m still paying for that MRI and surgery, and will be for a long time to come!

    It is said that humans can hear and be influenced by the spoken word while anesthetized, although they are not actually conscious. Therefore, I would presume that pets can hear while anesthetized, too. I hope the extreme noise of the MRI is not damaging to their sensitive hearing.

    • That’s a good question about cats’ sensitive hearing and how the noise of the magnet affects it, Pam. I’ll try to get an answer for you.

    • Pam, I checked with Dr. Smith about your question about the hearing damage – here’s her response: “Studies in humans have indicated that the noise levels in the MRI can certainly damage hearing over time. Although it has not been tested in pets, one exposure for a scan is not thought to cause any lasting compromise to hearing. Anesthesia does not protect from hearing damage, it just makes you not aware of the loud clanging noises. We will use ear plugs or cotton balls on occasion, but it is not routine.”

  7. Absolutely! My some time “night job” is running QA on a linear accelerator for cancer tx with my physicist husband. Found out not too long a go that our local emergency vet has one for pets. I’d absolutely have CT, MRI and radiation therapy done on my pets if the situation called for it.

    Caveat: I also have pet insurance with a cancer rider, though, so that could help mitigate costs.

    • Pet insurance is certainly an option for many pet guardians during these tough economic times, Lisa, and you’ve clearly read the small print when deciding on the cancer rider.

  8. Ingrid, thanks for this fascinating post. Yes, I would not hesitate if advised by our vet. My only issue is the cost. With so many pet guardians struggling financially these days, pets are receiving less regular vet visits, let alone a state-of-art technology.

    • High-tech medicine is expensive, whether it’s human or veterinary, Layla, and veterinarians are as affected by the economy as pet owners. It’s a tough situation all around.

  9. OMG INGRID! This is sooo cool! I wish I could have been there with you! I would do this in a second!! My parents’ dog, Tucker, had a MRI to find out about his degenerative disc disease – they took him to a human hospital to get it done.

    • Jenny, before there were animal imaging centers, that’s what vets sometimes did with pets: take them to human MRI centers. I would imagine they still do it if they don’t have access to an animal facility.

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