Focused ultrasound helps screen for heart disease in cats

Research out of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University suggests focused cardiac ultrasound, rather than a full echo workup, might be an effective way of screening for CVD in cats.

Though up to one-fifth of our feline friends die from heart disease every year, author Elizabeth Rozanski and colleagues wrote in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, it’s not an obvious statistic. Cats’ typically sedentary lifestyle helps conceal any symptoms of disease, and they’ve evolved over the years to hide illness from predators.

“Heart disease is one of the biggest killers of our cats,” Rozanski, a veterinary researcher, clinician and associate professor at the Cummings School, said in a statement. “This method is something small animal practitioners can add to their yearly physical exams as cats get much older to catch heart disease earlier.”

Because full echocardiograms can be pricey and are usually reserved for more dire situations, the Tufts researchers proposed using focused cardiac ultrasound (FCU)— “abbreviated echocardiograms” that leverage a practice’s existing equipment to detect heart disease—to screen for abnormalities in cats before moving onto more costly solutions. That way, veterinarians could assess a pet’s condition before referring them for a more in-depth evaluation.

Rozanski and her team trained twenty-two general practice vets in New England to perform FCU on nearly 300 client-owned cats, all of whom were at least 1 year old and had no clinical signs of heart disease. No practitioners had any formal cardiac ultrasound training.

Vets were asked to perform both standard physical exams and electrocardiograms on the cats before moving onto FCUs. After ultrasound the doctors were asked to determine whether they thought the animal had clinically significant heart disease, and a board-certified cardiologist was present to confirm that diagnosis.

Even with limited training, Rozanski et al. said the veterinarians were 93% successful in diagnosing cats with moderate heart disease and 100% successful in diagnosing those with severe heart disease.

“FCU performed by non-specialist practitioners (NSPs) significantly increased the differentiation of cats with occult heart disease that had previously received physical examination and ECG,” the authors wrote in their paper. “A high proportion of cats diagnosed with moderate to marked occult disease were detected by FCU. Focused cardiac ultrasound performed by NSPs is a practicable and helpful diagnostic tool, and further study of FCU is warranted.”