I've read on your blog "we almost never see false-positive results with the total T4 test." Since you say "almost," I'm wondering what, if anything, might cause a false-positive result?
I have a 16-year old, male domestic long hair cat who currently has a total T4 value of 6.0 µg/dl (reference range, 0.8-4.0 µg/dl) after being off of methimazole for 5 weeks. He has a long history of chronic diarrhea associated with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
About a year ago, we suspected hyperthyroidism based on a high-normal total T4 with a high free T4 concentration. He had thyroid scintigraphy at that time to confirm hyperthyroidism and help with his radioiodine dose calculation (we wanted to ensure that he wasn't overdosed — I don't want to end up with a hypothyroid cat!). Surprisingly, the results of this thyroid scintigraphy were negative (see his thyroid scintiscan above), though he was getting iodine supplements at the time.
About 6 months ago, his serum T4 was a bit higher (and his free T4 remained high) so we started treatment with methimazole. He was on methimazole for about 6 months, which did lower his T4, but the drug seemed to significantly worsen his chronic diarrhea, and he didn't gain any weight. My veterinarian has never been able to palpate an enlarged thyroid tumor in my cat.
I am interested in I-131 treatment, but would like to be as certain as possible he is hyperthyroid before making arrangements. Could there be any other explanation for high total and free T4 concentrations Do you see false-positive results?
His primary veterinarian and his internist both say they know of no other explanation for high total T4 concentration other than hyperthyroidism. But when I read "almost never" on your blog, that seems to imply it's possible (though unlikely) to get a false-positive test result. Since I know that you are the expert on feline hyperthyroidism, I thought I would try asking for your advice. I don't want to pursue radioiodine treatment if he isn't truly hyperthyroid.
In older cats that develop clinical signs of hyperthyroidism, confirming a diagnosis of thyroid disease is usually straightforward (1-3). However, the potential for false-negative and false-positive results exists with all thyroid function tests (4,5) — especially in the context of routine screening of asymptomatic cats or cats sick with nonthyroidal disease (such as the IBD in your cat). This can lead to clinical dilemmas and misdiagnosis.
To avoid unnecessary treatment and potentially adverse effects in a euthyroid cat (i.e., normal thyroid status), thyroid function test results must always be interpreted in the light of the cat’s history, clinical signs, and other laboratory findings.
Palpating the thyroid nodule
All cats with hyperthyroidism have a thyroid nodule (goiter) affecting one or both thyroid lobes, since in all cases there is underlying thyroid pathology leading to the disease (e.g., thyroid adenomatous hyperplasia, adenoma or carcinoma) (6).
Because all hyperthyroid cats must have at least one (if not two and sometimes more) thyroid nodules in order to develop the disease, the finding of a thyroid nodule, either by cervical palpation or by imaging (e.g., thyroid scintigraphy – see later), plays a crucial role in diagnosis in these cats (1-5).
If the veterinarian cannot palpate a thyroid nodule in the cat suspected of having hyperthyroidism, diagnosis becomes much more difficult to confirm, especially in cats with mild or borderline disease or in cats with concurrent illness.
Measuring the total T4 concentration
A high circulating total T4 concentration is the biochemical hallmark of hyperthyroidism and is extremely specific for its diagnosis (1–5).
False-positive results (i.e., a high T4 in a cat without hyperthyroidism) are relatively rare but are being seen with increasing frequency, especially with the automated T4 immunoassays and in-house testing kits. In agreement with that statement, we recently reported that 1–2% of all cats diagnosed as hyperthyroid based on the finding of a high serum T4 concentration turn out to be euthyroid based on results of thyroid scintigraphy (4,5).
Therefore, if a high serum T4 value is found in a cat that lacks clinical signs of hyperthyroidism, especially if no thyroid nodule is palpated or when concurrent disease is present, one should never hesitate to repeat the serum T4 test using a different technique. In these cases, T4 measured by radioimmunoassay (RIA) or chemiluminescence (Immulite) is preferred (4,5). Alternatively, additional thyroid function testing (complete thyroid profile, thyroid scintigraphy) may also be recommended (4,5,7-10).
Measuring the free T4 concentration
Many veterinarians believe that determination of a serum free T4 concentration is more reliable than measuring total T4 alone, since free T4 values are more consistently elevated in hyperthyroid cats than are total T4 concentrations (3,11). Although free T4 is a more sensitive diagnostic test than total T4 for diagnosing hyperthyroidism, the test specificity for free T4 is poor, with up to 20% of sick (and some clinically normal) euthyroid cats having false-positive free T4 results (3,11-13).
Caution is, therefore, advised in using serum measurements of free T4 as the sole diagnostic test for hyperthyroidism. As always, it is important to combine these thyroid test results with the cat’s clinical features and the presence of a palpable thyroid nodule to make the correct diagnosis.
More important, however, is the situation in cats that maintain reference interval serum T4 values and are diagnosed as hyperthyroid on the basis of a high serum free T4 concentration. Up to 30% of these cats presenting with a mid- to high–normal total T4 value, together with high free T4 concentrations by dialysis, will turn out to be euthyroid based on results of thyroid scintigraphy (4,13).
It is unclear how much additional useful information is truly gained by the use of free T4 assays over the use of total T4 estimations alone. Many veterinarians mistakenly believe that the finding of high free T4 in a cat is completely diagnostic for hyperthyroidism, especially when total T4 is within the middle to upper half of the reference interval. However, since up to a third of these cats may turn out to be euthyroid (4,13), it is clear that the free T4 test can never be considered a "gold standard" diagnostic test for thyroid disease in cats.
Use of free T4 testing can lead to more confusion than clarity in some hyperthyroid cats; certainly, reliance on free T4 results risks misdiagnosis of hyperthyroidism in many euthyroid cats, especially those with non- thyroidal illness.
Careful monitoring may be best diagnostic approach
So what is the next step if we find a high serum T4 in an asymptomatic cat in which no goiter is palpable? The first steps should always be to repeat the cervical palpation looking for a thyroid nodule and to verify the high T4 concentration. Again, the veterinarian should never hesitate to repeat the serum T4 test using a different technique, with RIA or CEIA preferred in such cats. Again, if we have any doubt about the diagnosis, thyroid scintigraphy should be considered (1,2,4,5).
In many of these asymptomatic cats in which the diagnosis is unclear (e.g., borderline or only slightly high T4 concentration, no obvious thyroid nodule), the best approach is to use close observation rather than start any treatment (4,5). With this cautious approach, one should recheck the cat at 2- to 3-month intervals, and at each visit monitoring the cat’s body weight, carefully re-palpating for a thyroid nodule, and repeating the serum T4 concentration doing a complete serum thyroid panel (T4, free T4, T3 and TSH) (4,5). If the cat is truly hyperthyroid, the thyroid tumor will continue to grow, the serum T4 will eventually rise into the hyperthyroid range, and the cat will lose weight.
My Bottom Line:
But what's up with your cat? Is he really hyperthyroid? Well, the finding of a T4 value of 6.0 µg/dl is certainly consistent with hyperthyroidism, but I'm bothered by a number of issues with the case.
First of all, his thyroid scan done a year ago was completely normal. Of course, a thyroid tumor could have developed during this period, but the clinical signs a year ago appear to be similar to those your cat is showing at this time.
Secondly, medical treatment made the diarrhea worse, not better. If hyperthyroidism was responsible for your cat's gastrointestinal signs (the main problem), lowering the serum thyroid values should have helped, not made the situation worse.
Thirdly, remember that all cats (as well as all humans) likely have their own individual "reference range," so it's possible that a T4 value slightly outside of the lab's reference range could actually be normal for that individual (14,15). Could it be that your cat normally runs higher thyroid hormone levels than most other cats? Or is current high T4 simply a laboratory error? That would certainly be the most common reason for the finding of a single "high" T4 concentration in a euthyroid cat.
Finally, you have seen a number of veterinarians (your regular veterinarian as well as internal medicine specialists). Despite multiple exams being performed by different vets, no one has been able to palpate a thyroid nodule. If this was my cat, I would not rush into treatment without repeating the thyroid scan to document the presence of a hyperfunctioning thyroid tumor.
- Mooney CT, Peterson ME. Feline hyperthyroidism In: Mooney CT, Peterson ME, eds. BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Endocrinology. Fourth ed. Quedgeley, Gloucester: British Small Animal Veterinary Association, 2012;92-110.
- Baral RM, Peterson ME. Thyroid gland disorders In: Little SE, ed. The Cat: Clinical Medicine and Management. St. Louis: Elsevier Saunders, 2012;571-592.
- Peterson ME, Melian C, Nichols R. Measurement of serum concentrations of free thyroxine, total thyroxine, and total triiodothyronine in cats with hyperthyroidism and cats with nonthyroidal disease. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2001;218:529-536.
- Peterson ME. Diagnostic testing for hyperthyroidism in cats: more than just T4. J Fel Med Surg 2013;15:765-777.
- Peterson ME. Diagnostic testing for feline thyroid disease: Hyperthyroidism. Compend Contin Educ Vet 2013:in press.
- Gerber H, Peter H, Ferguson DC, et al. Etiopathology of feline toxic nodular goiter. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract 1994;24:541-565.
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- Daniel GB, Sharp DS, Nieckarz JA, et al. Quantitative thyroid scintigraphy as a predictor of serum thyroxin concentration in normal and hyperthyroid cats.Vet Radiol Ultrasound 2002;43:374-382.
- Broome MR. Thyroid scintigraphy in hyperthyroidism. Clin Tech Small Anim Pract 2006;21:10-16.
- Peterson ME, Broome MR. Thyroid scintigraphic findings in 917 cats with hyperthyroidism. J Vet Intern Med 2012;26:754.
- Mooney CT, Little CJ, Macrae AW. Effect of illness not associated with the thyroid gland on serum total and free thyroxine concentrations in cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1996;208:2004-2008.
- Wakeling J, Moore K, Elliott J, et al. Diagnosis of hyperthyroidism in cats with mild chronic kidney disease. J Small Anim Pract 2008;49:287-294.
- Peterson ME, Broome MR, Robertson JE. Accuracy of serum free thyroxine concentrations determined by a new veterinary chemiluminscent immunoassay in euthyroid and hyperthyroid cats. Proceedings of the 21st Annual European College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ECVIM-CA) Congress; 2011.
- Andersen S, Bruun NH, Pedersen KM, et al. Biologic variation is important for interpretation of thyroid function tests. Thyroid 2003;13:1069-1078.
- Andersen S, Pedersen KM, Bruun NH, et al. Narrow individual variations in serum T(4) and T(3) in normal subjects: a clue to the understanding of subclinical thyroid disease. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2002;87:1068-1072.