Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Q & A: What's the Best Screening Test for Feline Hyperthyroidism?

We are trying to concur on choice of the single best test to screen cats for hyperthyroidism. Is determination of total T4 still the gold standard for screening the majority of cats?

My Response:

TT4 is diagnostic in 90% of cats
with hyperthyroidism
Use of a serum total T4 concentration is absolutely the best single screening test. But remember, the diagnosis of hyperthyroidism can never be based on a single total T4 alone. It has to be based on the presence of clinical features (eg. weight loss despite a good appetite) together with the presence of a thyroid nodule. If many clinical signs of hyperthyroid are present in a cat with a high total T4 but a thyroid nodule is not palpable, it's always a good idea to confirm the diagnosis by repeating the T4 and/or measuring a free T4 concentration.

Falsely high FT4 values common
in cats with other illness
In some cats with mild hyperthyroidism, the total T4 can be high-normal or only borderline high. In these cats, a free T4 measurement is commonly used to help verify the diagnosis. The free T4 value should NEVER be run without a total T4; the specificity of the T4 is quite poor, and many cats without hyperthyroidism will have a high free T4 concentration. Therefore, the presence of a high free T4 with a normal T4 is not really diagnostic for hyperthyroidism unless the cat is showing clinical signs of the disease and has a palpable thyroid nodule. 

Thyroid scan of a cat with
mild hyperthyroidism
Again, without clinical features and physical exam findings consistent with hyperthyroidism, it's always best to wait and retest at 1-3 month intervals. Thyroid scintigraphy (see Figure on left) can also be a very helpful diagnostic aid in these cats. Cats with mild hyperthyroidism have an increased uptake of the radionuclide by their thyroid nodules. The percent uptake (or thyroid:salivary ratio) can be calculated and used as a sensitive diagnostic test for hyperthyroid cats.

Sound difficult? Unfortunately, it is not always so easy to correctly diagnose hyperthyroidism in cats. But remember that treatment of hyperthyroidism is never an emergency, especially if the hyperthyroidism is very mild. If a 'borderline' cat does have hyperthyroidism, the thyroid nodule will grow and the total T4 will become high with time.

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