Stephanie Fyfe, a veterinary technician at the Espanola Animal Hospital, guides a dog on a gurney through a new CT scanner at the clinic. (Photo supplied)

There’s a PET scan, and then there’s a machine that scans pets.

Veterinarian PJ Rocheleau, of the Espanola Animal Hospital, now boasts one of the latter, and it’s the only one of its kind among vet clinics in the region.

“The hospital in Sudbury has a scanner, but ours is the only one in a veterinary hospital in Northern Ontario,” said Rocheleau.

The CT scanner — which is not to be confused with a positron emission tomography or PET scanner — is identical to the type that can be used for humans to diagnose a variety of diseases and conditions, although it’s a bit smaller than the version at Health Sciences North.

“Ours is actually a human head CT, but it just so happens you can put dogs through them,” said Rocheleau. “You can squeeze a dog through a surprisingly small hole.”

He admitted it might be tough to get the chest of a 200-pound Newfoundlander through the unit, but most dogs can be accommodated and even with the larger breeds it will be possible to scan their heads and limbs.

A 160-pound bull mastiff, for instance, was scheduled to be scanned Friday for elbow dysplasia, Rocheleau noted.

Cats, of course, will slide through just fine, and a couple have been scanned already. “No doubt we’re going to be hearing a lot of jokes about doing CAT scans,” he said.

The proper term for the device is a CT scanner, with the initials standing for computed tomography, but it’s often referred to as a CAT scan as well.

For animal owners, the presence of this tool in a nearby veterinary setting means a host of injuries and diseases afflicting pets can now be better analyzed and corrected, albeit at a cost.

Rocheleau said a scan costs $850, including the sedation or anesthesia required to keep the animal motionless and calm.

That’s a lot less, however, than it would cost to have the test done in Toronto, he noted, where “it can be over $2,000 just for the scan.” And of course Northerners now don’t have to travel nearly as far to access the technology for their pets.

The machine itself is worth a whopping $320,000, said Rocheleau, although he didn’t buy it outright. “We’re leasing it,” he said. “At the end of the lease there’s a $10 buyout.”

He’s confident it won’t be hard to make the lease payments, though, as there seems to be ample demand for the diagnostic option.

“The traffic and interest in the CT scan is exceeding our expectations already,” he said.

The animal hospital has only had the unit for a couple of weeks and staff were still being trained until recently on its operation. But already “we’ve done about 10 cases for various things, running from tumours to orthopedic disease,” said Rocheleau.

The scanner creates a three-dimensional picture through a series of cross-sectional images or ‘slices.’

It can be very useful in diagnosing “anything that produces anatomical or structural change,” he said. “Or a space-occupying lesion like a tumour or foreign body.”

Dogs, he noted, are known to wolf down an occasional sock or other item that isn’t too easy to digest. If so, that would show up in the scan, “whereas with regular X-rays that can be an exercise in frustration.”

The scanner is also great for figuring out head and sinus problems, he said. It even allows for the creation of a plastic, 3D copy of the animal’s skull “that you can practise on” before operating on the actual animal, he said.

Perhaps the most exciting opportunity it provides, however, is the chance to get some incapacitated canines back on their feet.

“When a dog herniates a disc, it impinges on the spinal cord and they are paralyzed,” said Rocheleau.

Now that he has the scanner, and more training in spinal surgery under his belt, he expects he will be able to help such animals regain their mobility.

“We’ll run the CT to figure out which disc it is,” he said. “The CT tells me where to cut, we go in and remove the extruded disc material, and the dog walks again.”

The success rate for this kind of disc operation is 98 per cent, he said.

Many pets are already referred to the Espanola clinic for surgeries, said Rocheleau, and he anticipates Sudbury clinics will also direct pet owners his way for scans.