Veterinarians already have a heavy workload, but other people working within the veterinary practice environment are ideally placed to run a pregnancy scanning service for small animals.
I’m going to first show you a canine pregnancy scan at 16 days, 30 days, and 50 days. Can you sort them in order of gestational age?
I bet you already can. There are a lot of clues:
Size: down the left is the scale of the ultrasound machine, which allows us to very quickly judge the size of a structure even without getting our distance callipers out.
Shape: in early pregnancy in dogs and cats, you will see circular gestation sacs. As the pregnancy progresses the sacs will become more oval in shape, and eventually, the foetus itself takes up so much of the space that the sac is no longer the main feature.
Development: in these foetuses of later gestational age, they look like puppies. You can see the head, the muzzle, the hearts. Very different to what we see at 30 days or earlier.
If only pregnancy confirmation with ultrasound were always so clear-cut! When we scan small animals for pregnancy, we can encounter many ambiguous structures and potential pitfalls. For the beginner, intestines and even blood vessels can be confused for gestation sacs, until they have been properly taught the anatomical knowledge and ultrasound techniques to ensure that they never make this mistake in practice. In its early stages, pyometra in dogs can also be ambiguous. If the person using ultrasound has not been taught the warning signs of this disease and does not immediately refer to a veterinarian, the consequences can be disastrous.
Who can perform a pregnancy scan?
Pregnancy confirmation with ultrasound is a topic that has become almost political in the United Kingdom, particularly when it involves dogs.
We have been teaching pregnancy scanning in animals for over 10 years, to a range of audiences – from people with no veterinary background whatsoever, through to RVNs, vet techs and licensed veterinarians. The only difference in the way these various groups are taught is in what they can do with their ultrasound machine; what action they can take, based on their findings. A paraprofessional can never diagnose, and if they are properly trained, they will know how important it is to work closely with their local veterinarians and refer any unusual findings straight to them.
The problem we have right now, though, is that there are so many poorly trained people out there scanning irresponsibly (whether they mean to or not). Because of this, paraprofessionals are all being tarred with the same brush and linked with irresponsible use of ultrasound and breeding practices in general. In a relatively short space of time – really only about the last 6 years – paraprofessionals have gone from being valued and respected assistants to local vet practices, to being seen as a threat to animal welfare and undermining the veterinary profession.
What difference can RVNs, VCAs and others make?
If you are a vet nurse, veterinary care assistant or any other allied professional or paraprofessional, you can use ultrasound to confirm pregnancy in animals, safely; something my colleagues and I have always taught, long before this topic became so mainstream. Our syllabus was created and has evolved in constant consultation with veterinarians and obstetric sonographers.
You can learn this skill to reduce the pressure on the vets, or if you decide it’s not for you, you can work with your local AUA-accredited scanner, knowing that they use the safest, most appropriate equipment and have undergone appropriate training. It is worth noting that the number of lay people registered with the Animal Ultrasound Association in the United Kingdom right now – people who have undergone extensive training and assessment by sonographers – is fewer than 60 individuals; fewer than 60 non-veterinarians nationwide have met our high standards for small animal pregnancy scanning. Everybody else is a licensed veterinarian. So actually, far from a saturated market, when it comes to competent and responsible veterinary pregnancy scanning, there is actually a national shortage.
To learn more about our training courses and join our community of highly skilled users of ultrasound, visit our training page here.