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Postmortems in Pets are a Delicate Subject
Revised: February 25, 2020
Published: March 08, 2001

Most of us have seen television shows and movies featuring specialists doing autopsies to try to figure out exactly what caused a person's death. What those pathologists are doing is called an autopsy, or post-mortem. When the examination is being done on an animal, however, the procedure is called a necropsy. (The term autopsy is used only for humans because auto means self and only refers to humans doing postmortems on the same species, which are other humans.) The process is the same, though: it is a surgery that helps tell what happened and what did or could have, caused the animal's death.

A necropsy can be done at your veterinarian’s clinic, or by a veterinary pathologist at a veterinary school or specialty practice. In order to get the most useful information, a necropsy should be performed within 48 hours of death.

If your pet died at home, it is important to keep it cool until it can be transported to the pathologist. If the pet isn't kept cool enough or isn't transported to the pathologist soon enough, the tissues will degenerate faster and may result in an inability to do the necropsy successfully.

In general, it is best to get your pet to the veterinarian as soon as possible after death and to keep the body cool (below 60°F if possible), but not frozen. If the tissues freeze, the cells will be damaged and may render the necropsy useless.

Why would you Want a Necropsy for a Pet?

When a pet dies suddenly or without obvious cause, owners often blame themselves for negligence or oversight. Usually, this guilt is unwarranted, but without a postmortem, the cause of death will remain unknown. You and your veterinarian may second guess what you did or did not do. Also, without the necropsy, you may not know how to prevent the same problem with future pets.

A necropsy can reveal genetic, environmental, and dietary problems. It can help determine the success or failure of certain medical or surgical treatments. A good necropsy is a diagnostic tool because the body offers clues and solid answers about an animal's death.

Sure, sometimes the answer is obvious, if your healthy dog or cat was hit by a car and there’s no interest in learning anymore. But what if your pet had a disease? Perhaps the necropsy will tell you why the disease was/wasn't curable.

Some owners will want to know just because they're curious. Some want to know because they have a sibling, parent, or offspring of that pet, and they want to ensure the pet didn't die of something that the related animals are at risk for. Maybe the owner is a breeder and wants to prevent a similar death from happening again in the bloodline.

Sudden deaths are difficult emotionally, and the urge to know what happened is usually stronger than after an elderly pet who has been sick for a long time. Some people may want a necropsy for a younger pet whereas they might not ask for one for an older, ill pet; for some, it’s enough to know that the pet was elderly and had been ill. Sometimes owners wonder if a pet’s long-term behavioral problem, such as inappropriate elimination or eating rocks, is related to a physical disease.

Sometimes we want to know if we were right to choose euthanasia, given what we knew at the time. In some cases, the person who is wondering what happened is the veterinarian, not the pet owner. A veterinarian may want to know if they were on track in treatment, especially when dealing with diseases not commonly seen. The knowledge gained may be useful the next time a similar case is seen.

Some people have no interest in a necropsy, or don’t know it’s an option. Owners don’t typically request one, and many veterinarians don’t offer it because it’s a delicate topic for grieving owners.

Whether or not you want a post-mortem done, speak to your veterinarian about it. It’s best to think about your choice in advance if you have that option. Your veterinarian will respect your decision.

A post-mortem exam will not necessarily give all the answers, but, if nothing else, it may give you closure knowing you did everything you could for your pet. 

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