Echocardiography has emerged as the most valuable non-invasive tool for evaluation of cardiac structure, function, blood flow
patterns, and has greatly diminished the need for diagnostic cardiac catheterizations and angiocardiography in many cases.
Echocardiography is one tool for evaluation of the cardiac patient, but should be used in conjunction with other diagnostic
tests including thoracic radiography and electrocardiography for a global assessment of the patient.
There have been rapid and significant advances in the technology of ultrasound machines. Rapid frame rates are essential
to image the dynamic changes of the heart during the cardiac cycle. Higher MHz transducers have higher frame rates, greater
image resolution, but less tissue penetration. Lower MHz probes offer greater tissue penetration and stronger Doppler properties
with higher maximal velocity measurements. Cats and small dogs are most often imaged with > 7 MHz transducer, medium dogs
with a 5 MHz probe, and large dogs with 3-4 MHz transducer. Newer machines offer digital acquisition of still frames and
real-time loops, and can be stored on PACS servers. Depth controls are adjusted until the cardiac image fills the field.
Time gain compensation (TGC) controls the gain at specific depths, and often the near field is adjusted to have less gain
than the far field. Compression adjusts the dynamic range of gray scale, so increased compression allows for more gray scale
from weaker echoes, and less compression results in a higher contrast image. Often echocardiographic images are adjusted
for less compression for better delineation of the cardiac structures from the blood pool. Persistence should be adjusted
to zero or minimal since averaging several frames results in a blurred real time effect. Sector width can be adjusted, and
the narrower the sector, the higher frame rate and greater the resolution. Frame rates of 15-30 frames per second are adequate
for the appearance of real-time motion in most small animals.
Due to the reflection of sound waves from lungs, there are limited windows for adequate acoustic penetration. It is recommended
to image from beneath the animal while it is in lateral recumbency, since there is a larger and better quality acoustic window.
Specialized ultrasound tables are commercially available or can be constructed with a cut-out to image from beneath the animal.
Shaving the hair at the left and right precordial transducer locations may improve image quality but is usually not necessary.
The hair should be wet and parted to expose skin at the transducer placement and liberal and repeat applications of ultrasonic
gel to the transducer is necessary.
An ordered approach to echocardiography is important. Two dimensional (2D) echocardiography is the first modality used to
examine the structure and function of the heart. There are standard echocardiographic views that are obtained from the right
and left thorax to evaluate cardiac structure and function and are necessary for standardization of cardiac measurements.(1)
The right parasternal window is the first location to image, and is located between the fourth and sixth intercostal spaces.
Palpation of the area of the strongest apical beat typically identifies the most optimal position to image from. The probe
is positioned at the level of the costo-chondral junction or slightly closer to the sternum. The right parasternal long axis
4-chamber view is the first to be obtained (Figure 1). The probe is aligned parallel to the long axis of the left ventricle,
with the transducer mark pointed towards the cervical vertebrae (towards the head). The left and right ventricles, right
and left atria, and atrioventricular valves are examined. Assessment of overall left and right heart size and morphology
of the atrioventricular valves and chordae tendinae structure can be made. Mitral valve prolapse or flail may be identified
using this view (Figure 2). The right parasternal long axis left ventricular outflow tract view is then obtained by slightly
rotating the probe in the cranial direction (Figure 3). This view is essential for evaluation of the aorta, aortic cusps,
interventricular septum, and the anterior mitral valve movement in systole. Subaortic stenosis, systolic anterior motion
of the mitral valve, ventricular septal defects, aortic valve abnormalities, and heart base tumors are well visualized in
The right parasternal short-axis views are obtained by rotating the transducer 90 degrees from the long axis, with the transducer
mark oriented cranially. The following levels of the heart are systematically evaluated from the right parasternal short-axis
view starting from the apex and moving to the most basilar aspect of the heart: the apex, the left ventricle and papillary
muscles, the left ventricle at the level of the chordae tendinae (Figure 4), the mitral valve, the left atrium and aorta (Figures
5 and 6), the right ventricular outflow tract and the pulmonic valve (Figure 7), and lastly the pulmonary artery branches,
the right auricle and caudal vena cava. M-mode measurements of the left ventricular size during systole and diastole are
made at the level of the chordae tendinae in dogs (Figures 8 and 9). 2-D measurements of left ventricular size in cats is
recommended since there may be assymetrical hypertrophy that may not be within the M-mode cursor. Left atrial and aortic
diameters are most accurately measured in 2-D at the level of the aortic cusps, during diastole when they are closed. LA:Ao
ratio is calculated, and > 1.5 suggests left atrial dilation (Figure 6). Allometric scaling of left ventricular size normalized
to body length has been validated by several investigators and provides the most accurate reference values (Table 1).(2)
Sight hounds often have larger sized left ventricles than according to body size. When the left ventricular end diastolic
diameter is increased, the term is eccentric hypertrophy, and signifies a volume overload to the left ventricle. When the
left ventricular systolic diameter is increased, this signifies systolic myocardial failure, which may be primary or secondary.
Reduced fractional shortening (EDD-ESD/EDD) is indicative of myocardial failure (Figure 9). E-point to septal thickness (EPSS)
is measured by M-mode at the level of the mitral valve in the right parasternal short-axis view (Figure 10), and increases
in EPSS are indicative of systolic myocardial failure (Figure 11). Increased wall thickness is termed concentric hypertrophy,
and occurs secondary to pressure overload or is a primary abnormality due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (Figure 12). Left
ventricular concentric hypertrophy in cats is defined as wall thickness ≥ 6 mm.
The second thoracic acoustic window is the left apical (caudal) parasternal window, which is located between the left 5th and 7th intercostal spaces adjacent to the sternum. The transducer is aligned parallel to the long axis of the heart with transducer
marker directed cranially. The left apical 4-chamber view is obtained, which depicts the heart "upside-down" with the apex
closest to the transducer (Figure 13). The mitral and tricuspid valves can be carefully inspected, and this position allows
excellent alignment for mitral inflow Doppler studies as well as color flow and Doppler assessment of atrioventricular valve
insufficiencies. By slightly rotating the transducer, the left apical 5-chamber view is then obtained, which visualizes the
left ventricular outflow tract and aorta in addition to the left and right chambers of the heart (Figure 14). This view is
essential for color flow and Doppler evaluation of the left ventricular outflow tract and aorta since the beam is aligned
parallel to blood being ejected out the aorta.