Diagnosing feline hyperthyroidism: It's not always as simple as it seems


Don't rely too heavily on T4 concentrations since cats can have a false elevation.

In his presentation, “Diagnosis of hyperthyroidism: A critical evaluation of our current available tests,” Mark Peterson, DVM, DACVIM, discussed some of the pitfalls in relying too heavily on thyroid (thyroxine, or T4) testing alone. While a total T4 concentration will be enough to make an accurate diagnosis of hyperthyroidism in more than 90% of cases, he warned to always pay attention to the clinical signs and physical examination findings. There are cats that can have a false elevation in their T4 concentration, so supportive clinical signs as well as a palpable thyroid nodule will help rule in or rule out the diagnosis. 

When it comes to successfully palpating for evidence of a thyroid nodule, Peterson detailed a few of his favorite techniques:

  • Stand behind the cat with the cat facing away from you-the cat feels less stressed if it can't see you. Peterson also puts the cat in a basket with a towel so the cat feels more secure and is less squirmy. Use your thumb and index finger to gently run the length of the trachea from the larynx to the thoracic inlet.

  • Alternatively, with the cat in the same position, turn its head to the left and palpate. Repeat with the cat's head turned in the other direction.

For patients in which a thyroid nodule can be palpated but there are no clinical signs and there is no elevation in T4 concentration, he recommends monitoring signs at home and rechecking the level in six to 12 months. 

Peterson also noted that there are different cut-off values from laboratory to laboratory. This means that a T4 concentration that is normal at one laboratory, may actually be elevated at another. This serves as another reminder of the importance of the physical examination and clinical signs when trying to diagnose hyperthyroidism. 

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