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New business offers MRIs for pets, even beluga whales

Tegan Hanlon

A group of medical professionals who spent decades treating humans has started an Anchorage business more fit for patients with fur, scales and feathers.

At Veterinary Imaging Specialists of Alaska, tucked inside the Pet Emergency Treatment building in Midtown, animals can receive MRIs, CT scans and a type of X-ray called fluoroscopy -- services for the first time being offered specifically for pets.

Previously, some human facilities allowed veterinarians to use their imaging equipment for animals, said Dr. Harold Cable, a radiologist and business partner in the new venture. When the facility opened in January, it took a pet-exclusive approach to the procedures.

"We have machines that have been reconfigured for animals," Cable said.

So when two dead beluga whales washed ashore near Kincaid Park last week, scientists called Veterinary Imaging Specialists of Alaska. Within hours, one of the belugas went through the CT scanner in hopes that the images would reveal more information about the death, said Toni Holmes, the business's director of operations.

"We can scan any animal," she said. "Like if the zoo needed something, they could call us. We don't have to worry about going to the human facility after hours."

"We scanned a cat the other day who couldn't keep her food down. So we brought her in here and fed her while we were looking on the live X-ray as she was chewing and swallowing."

The cat had an esophageal stricture (a narrowing of her esophagus).

Holmes said that talk of a pet-friendly imaging business has floated through the medical community for years. She thought about it in 2000 when starting a human imaging center in the city but determined the need wasn't there. Then, a few years later, she connected with Kristin Garrison while working at the Orthopedic Physicians Anchorage and met Cable and his wife Heidi, a sonographer.

The idea of combining radiology and veterinary medicine continued to formulate. Plus, they're all pet owners, said Garrison, an MRI technologist and the business's director of marketing and public relations.

"We love animals, and we love imaging," she said. "We just thought it would be a neat thing that we could do."

But there was one missing element, Holmes said: the anesthesia. Neither she nor Garrison could administer it.

They talked to Pet Emergency Treatment. The clinic, on East Dowling Road, had a large room where it had planned to someday put scanning equipment. It also had veterinarians who could handle the anesthesia part, Holmes said.

"It was very serendipitous timing," she said.

So the group of four ordered an MRI scanner from South Carolina and a CT scanner from California. Within about two years, they opened Veterinary Imaging Specialists of Alaska, charging $800 for a CT scan and $1,300 for an MRI, plus the costs of anesthesia.

For Vickie Young, the new business meant she could figure out why her pug, Tricksie, kept shaking, showing seizure-like symptoms. As the founder of Polar Pug Rescue and Friends, she had gone through the process of searching for answers for sick dogs before.

With her pug Lucky, she never did receive that diagnosis about his neurological symptoms, but she spent about $2,000 trying to, she said.

"So it's not as outrageously expensive as people think," Young said of the MRI. "Because a little diagnostics here, blood work here, an X-ray here, a test result here, a biopsy here, that adds up quickly, when one test would have just given us the answer."

On Thursday, Young brought in Tricksie. Veterinarians shaved the chest of the nearly 14-pound, 16-month-old pug. She wore small ear plugs and an oxygen sensor, normally attached to a human's finger, clipped to her tongue.

For about three hours, Garrison and Holmes snapped images of Tricksie's brain while a veterinarian monitored Tricksie's vital signs.

After the scan, Garrison and Holmes sent the images to Eagle Eye Radiology in Colorado. Radiologists there read the images and relayed the information to the pet owner's veterinarian.

By 2 p.m., Young got a diagnosis, though it was grim. Tricksie has pug dog encephalitis, a rare genetic disease. There is no cure, the veterinarians said.

"We are looking at two to five months with our baby," Young said. "But at least now we know, and we know that we will do everything we can for her quality of life. I would have lost her, wondering for a long time what I could have done to save her."

Reach Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com or 257-4589.


By TEGAN HANLON
thanlon@adn.com