X-Ray Vision / Halloween Horrors


For those who wish for x-ray vision, I say “Have at it, and good luck to you”. Of course, in the cartoons, x-ray vision meant the ability to see through walls and other people’s clothes. In the military, the phrase “night vision” is a desire to see clear as daylight – in pitch darkness.  For me, x-ray vision is the ability to look at radiographs of my patients and find the needle in the haystack – or whatever oddity has made my patient ill and prompted the order for x-rays in the first place!  The original “x-ray” (“x” meant unknown) was discovered in 1895 by a German scientist named W. C. Roentgen. This new ray could pass through the flesh but not through bones or metal objects. Roentgen was able to capture a picture of a hand using these mysterious invisible rays with a photography plate. Ta da! This work was shared among scientists of the day and ultimately led to a mobile radiograph station used in World War 1 to serve injured soldiers on the battlefields of France. Led by Mme. Marie Curie, various automobiles were transformed into x-ray taking centers, complete with the ability to develop the film on-site and were called “Little Curie’s”. It is said that Marie Curie herself drove one to the battlefields.


This was over 100 years ago and astounds me. Antibiotics were a thing of the future, anesthesia was crude, but we could take see-through pictures of people’s bones and hunt for bullets to guide their removal. Amazing!


Today the digital age has improved radiographs to a very high-def picture (ok, not like the TV in your living room). Although “x-rays” are used to make the picture, the actual image produced on the plate or screen is called a radiograph. Truth is, most of us still just call the pictures “x-rays”. That’s ok. X-ray images are only two dimensional. You must combine two views, usually one taken laying on the side and a second with the pet laying down flat on its back. Then the reader , a radiologist or just your local veterinarian, must put these images together in their mind to decide if the swallowed object (or whatever you’re looking for) is on the right or left side, closer to the backbone or by the belly button.  You must join these two images together in your mind to create a grid. For 3 dimensional x-rays, turn to the CT or CAT scan (computerized axial tonometry) images. In this technique a series of x-rays views are taken from multiple angles, then a computer processes it into neat slices of the body part under discussion. Confusing? You get used to it after awhile.


The devil, as they say, is in the details. What appears simple at first look may in fact be hiding something very important. Like a grainy black and white polaroid photo, X-rays are a mess of shades of grey. (Sorry, didn’t read the book. I was reading x-rays!) Many x-rays are easy to read. They give you false confidence. A large bone snapped in half, got it. An enlarged heart, bladder stones, a calcified disc in the backbone. All easy to read. As you progress in more detail, the headache starts. Are those doughnuts in the lungs? Nope, no dunking here, we’re scanning for round tubes of thickened bronchi in a coughing dog. No kidding, these unhappy, inflamed lungs will show up as white circles called “doughnuts”, at least by those in the veterinary medical profession.  Calorie free, may I add.

We often confirm a pregnancy by x-ray. Blood tests can confirm the pregnancy after the first 30 days of a roughly 2 month pregnancy (dogs and cats) but is close to the cost of x-rays and gives no details beyond yes or no. Ultrasound can confirm the pregnancy and check on live fetal heartbeats but isn’t reliable for giving you an accurate head count. Radiographic images taken after 45 days of pregnancy, when the babies’ skeletons are calcified, gives an accurate head count and is tremendously useful on the day of delivery, as the breeder knows what to expect and when labor is over.


In the last three days we x-rayed two dogs, a kitten and a guinea pig with broken bones. We took chest x rays on more than 6 pets and found  4 enlarged hearts, a tumor in the lungs and a case of bleeding into the chest. A macaw parrot did not have an intestinal obstruction. A pregnancy had 3 puppies. One dog had hip dysplasia, two had severe arthritis of the spine, another a slipped disc. “Patty” had nothing wrong at all on her x-ray image. But she screamed if you tried to gently touch her tail and was found to have a deep bruise to the soft tissue over her hip. The radiographs gave us peace of mind that Patty had not broken any bones, and steered our course of treatment towards the correct use of anti-inflammatories to speed her to a quick recovery.


Christine B. McFadden, DVM






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