We all expect human hospitals to have x-ray machines, but did you know most veterinary clinics have x-rays machines as well? X-rays (or radiographs) are a very important diagnostic tool to help veterinary teams determine what is wrong with your kitty.

When most people think of x-rays, they think of broken bones. Assessing fractures is one important use for radiographs, but there is so much more they can tell us. Radiographs are useful in diagnosing many conditions, including heart disease, pneumonia, intestinal obstructions, bladder stones, arthritis, and certain types of cancer.

A cat radiograph is a two-dimensional picture of a three-dimensional object. By taking two or more views, we get a more complete picture. The most common views are a lateral view, which is the kitty laying on one side, and a ventrodorsal view (VD), with the kitty laying on his back. Together, these images give us a more complete picture of what is going on inside.

In the days when x-rays were taken on film, most veterinary clinics charged per x-ray. Now that most radiographs are processed digitally, you will likely be charged per “study”. A study is a series of x-rays focusing on a specific area of the body and usually consist of two to three x-rays.

The types of studies commonly done on cats are listed below:

  • Orthopedic –this study is assessing a specific area of the skeleton. It may be a joint, a leg, or the spine. Orthopedic radiographs are used to look for injuries, such as bone fractures or dislocations, arthritis in a joint, improper development of a joint such as hip dysplasia, overall bone health, assess fracture healing, and to look for certain types of cancer or fungal infections that affect bone. If multiple areas of the skeleton need to be radiographed, each area is considered a different study. For example, if your veterinarian wants to assess both elbows and the hips, this would be three series.
  • Thoracic – the thorax is the chest. Thoracic radiographs assess the heart and lungs. Your veterinarian may be looking for signs of heart disease, lung infections, asthma, tumors, or metastatic spread of cancer. The trachea and esophagus are also evaluated with this series.
  • Abdominal – this study evaluates the internal organs between the diaphragm and the pelvis. Abdominal radiographs are probably the most common series taken in cats because of all the different conditions it helps us assess. Abdominal radiographs can show an intestinal obstruction, the size and health of the liver, spleen, and kidneys, find bladder stones, foreign bodies in the gastrointestinal tract, and make some abdominal masses visible.
  • Skull – most cats need to be sedated or anesthetized for these x-rays to be successful. These radiographs may be indicated to look for signs of polyps in the inner ear, tumors in the bones of the skill or nasal passages, and assess fractures.
  • Catogram – some cats are small enough that both their chest and abdomen will fit on the same x-ray plate. Radiologists will tell you that catograms are not ideal, that the focus should only be either on the chest or the abdomen, not both. This is because x-rays travel though the chest and abdomen differently and the settings need to be adjusted to get the best detail depending on the area of focus. However, in some emergency situations, or if cost is a concern, many general practitioners will resort to catograms.
cat lying at the veterinarian's office

Veterinary radiologists have an additional three years of training to read radiographs, ultrasounds, CTs, and MRIs where they are trained to pick up subtle details general veterinarians may miss.

The cost of a series of x-rays is highly variable, depending on your region, but you can expect to pay $100-300 for a series of 2-3 x-rays. Emergency clinics may charge up to $400. If sedation or anesthesia is required for the x-rays, this will be an additional fee.

The images are usually interpreted by the veterinarian who ordered the x-rays. However, thanks to digital radiographs, the images can be shared with a veterinary radiologist for consultation and interpretation.

Veterinary radiologists have an additional three years of training to read radiographs, ultrasounds, CTs, and MRIs. They are trained to pick up subtle details general veterinarians may miss. A radiologist consult will add on an additional $100-300 to the cost of the series, depending on how quickly the veterinarian wants the radiographs read and which consulting group they use.

Some clinics, such as the emergency clinic in my area, submit all radiographs for consultation and the consultation cost is already incorporated into the cost of the series.

Your veterinarian may recommend other types of x-rays beyond the studies listed above. One fairly common test is a barium series. Your kitty swallows liquid barium and radiographs are taken throughout the day.

The barium outlines the gastrointestinal tract so that the veterinarian can get a better look at the inside of various structures. Barium can outline tumors within the stomach and intestines, foreign bodies, and ulcerations.

It can also be useful to diagnose an intestinal obstruction. The barium series has been replaced by ultrasound in many practices, but it is still a good diagnostic tool used by many practitioners.

Because of the amount of time and number of x-rays required for a barium series, the cost is often at least double the cost of an abdominal study.

Dental radiographs are an important part of a proper oral health exam. The veterinarian uses dental x-rays to evaluate tooth roots and surrounding tissue below the gum line. Dental radiographs require a different type of x-ray machine, very similar to the machine your dentist likely uses.

veterinarians performing xray on a cat

There is so much variability with dental treatments, so it’s the best that you ask your veterinarian for an estimate of the cost.

The x-ray plate needs to be inside the cat’s mouth so anesthesia is absolutely necessary. To see all the teeth in a cat’s mouth, it takes six to twelve small radiographs. Dental radiographs are only part of the oral health exam and are usually done in conjunction with a dental cleaning under general anesthesia.

There is so much variability with dental treatments that I recommend you ask your veterinarian for an estimate of the cost.

Radiographs are a very important diagnostic tool. On average, you can expect to pay $150-250, maybe more or less depending on where you live, whether it is an emergency, and how many studies your cat needs.

Good radiographs help your veterinarian to make a more accurate diagnosis and treatment plan for your kitty.