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Old September 11th, 2003, 02:46 PM
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Hospital to offer private MRIs for pets

Veterinary clinic buys diagnostic unit amid growing concern for animals' health

Tony Lofaro

The Ottawa Citizen
Ottawa is getting a magnetic resonance imaging unit specifically geared for examining ill pets, the Citizen has learned.

The unit, to be installed inside a portable trailer on a concrete pad adjacent to the Alta Vista Animal Hospital on Bank Street, is believed to be the first MRI unit at a private veterinary clinic in Canada, said a hospital spokesman. It could be set up within a few months.

A few other MRI units for pets are operating in the country -- including machines at the University of Guelph, in Guelph, Ont., and at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon -- but they aren't privately operated. In Guelph and Saskatoon, they are connected to university hospitals for teaching purposes.

Ottawa planning officials have received an application for site plan approval and are expected to give the site the go-ahead within a few weeks, said Steve Sidoli, hospital director at the Alta Vista Animal Hospital.

"We hope to have the unit up and running by the end of the year," he said. Mr. Sidoli said the pet MRI unit -- which is almost identical to those used on humans -- is a used machine coming from a supplier in St Louis.

Mr. Sidoli admits that the announcement of an MRI unit for pets could upset some humans -- especially if they're among the estimated 6,500 people in the area who've been waiting months for an MRI scan.

A study by the provincial government released in July showed the Ottawa area has fewer MRI scanners per capita than any major region in Ontario. In the Eastern Ontario region -- which is centred around Ottawa and includes Kingston -- there are 21/2 MRIs per million people, compared with six per million in Toronto.

Mr. Sidoli said they have no control over the provincial system for human medicine.

"We are only working within where we can make a difference, which is the veterinary side," he said. "I'd love everyone to have a MRI as soon as they need one."

Plans for the MRI have been in the works for 14 months. The move was made is in response to demand from pet owners, who want to have a unit operating here so they don't have to take their pets to other centres for treatment, said Mr. Sidoli.

"People were asking us. We had cases that required MRI technology and we couldn't go any further with them," said Mr. Sidoli, who has referred some Ottawa clients to Guelph.

Pet MRIs are already operating in several big U.S. cities, a move that perhaps reflects an increased concern by animal owners for the general welfare of their pets.

Recent studies indicate pet owners do have cause for concern. Just this week, a major U.S. study found 25 per cent of dogs and cats in North Americaare overweight.

Mr. Sidoli said seven Ottawa veterinarians will be leasing the unit from an Ontario-based MRI company and he expects the fee to pet-owners to be almost the same as what MRI patients currently pay. Normally, the fee at private MRI clinics is about $750.

He said results of the MRI scans will not be read in-house at the outset. Instead, they most likely will be shipped to the United States for examination. He expects the turnaround on MRI scans to be about 48 hours.

Dr. Trevor Bebchuk, a veterinary surgeon at the Alta Vista Animal Hospital, said the MRI unit will be able to perform full body scans -- primarily on dogs and cats -- to give more accurate diagnoses.

"What the MRI offers us is the ability to get very good images of soft tissue and neurologic diseases and even joint disorders that we just can't see effectively any other way," said Dr. Bebchuk.

"MRI is one of the best in terms of detail and quality of images and our ability to use that information to perform therapeutic measures, such as surgery or other medical approaches."

He said there will always be cases where decisions on how to proceed with a treatment will be difficult, but an MRI will make them much "fewer and far between."

To get an accurate scan of a dog or cat the animals will be sedated before entering the MRI machine, he said.

"We see cases all the time that I think will benefit by the use of an MRI. These animals are often viewed as part of a family and for many people it (the cost) is not an issue."
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