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To Necropsy (Autopsy) or not?

By: Dr. Andrew Hoffman

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You've lost your horse, your companion, your best friend. You may have just made the most difficult decision of your life...to put him to sleep. Maybe he died suddenly and unexpectedly and you haven't had time to comprehend your loss. With your head swirling, full of questions, you still have to make some difficult choices that may impact you later on, so try to think through these carefully.

The first decision is whether or not to have an autopsy. For many people, the idea of having an autopsy, called a necropsy in animals, feels uncomfortable. Opening the body seems like an invasion of the soul and feels like unnecessary surgery. It doesn't seem natural.

On the other hand, knowing exactly what happened might give you some comfort. There are many questions surrounding death, and a necropsy can solve many of them, such as:

  • Why did my horse got sick in the first place?
  • Why did the problem progress to fatality?
  • Why didn't he respond to treatment?
  • Was there an underlying condition.
  • Was there something contagious or poisonous?

    The decision to do an autopsy can be an act of kindness. The information gained may very well protect you, your horses, or other animals, from similar danger. Good examples include necropsies that reveal Salmonella infection, pneumonia caused by Rhodococcus equi infection, and Red Maple Poisoning. With these problems, a horse can die so quickly that a diagnosis is not possible.

    Any horse suspected of rabies must have a necropsy performed. In this case, the brain must be removed by your veterinarian and submitted to the state laboratory for examination. This is your obligation, and failure to seek a diagnosis can have serious implications.

    Another compelling reason to get a necropsy is to settle an insurance claim. A necropsy should be sought as soon as possible if there is some question about the claim, and in most cases it is necessary to process a claim. It may be necessary to transport the body to a facility with a board certified veterinary pathologist, so ask your veterinarian about livestock transportation in your area. Fortunately, most necropsies can be conducted in the field.

    Finally, if there are questions about the ethical or professional manner with which your horse was treated, a necropsy should always be sought. Although a necropsy cannot always provide support to your concerns, it is a necessary step in the legal process, unless a firm diagnosis was established before death. It is most important to reserve judgment until a complete necropsy is done.

    Necropsy of the horse can be done carefully and without much disfigurement in many cases. For example, the cause of colic, and diseases of the liver, kidney, heart and lung, can be determined by sampling those organs through one or two 12-inch incisions. In many cases, these entry points can be sutured up afterwards.

    Biopsy specimens are removed from various organs and submitted for analysis by a veterinary pathologist. If the cause of death can be determined based on examination of the internal organs, tissue samples may not be submitted. After internal examination and biopsy, the incision is sutured, similar to a surgical incision.

    Removal of body parts is required when there isn't an obvious problem observed at necropsy. The most difficult organs to evaluate are the brain and spinal cord. More invasive procedures must be done to visualize these organs. Because of this, sometimes the brain and spinal cord are not examined.

    It might take a few days to get the final answer, because the tissues removed have to be processed in the laboratory, then carefully examined by the pathologist. Brain and spinal cord tissue can take weeks to process. It is important to get your veterinarian to interpret the findings, since only you and your veterinarian understand the context of the findings. A common mistake is to misinterpret the pathologist's findings. Your veterinarian can help you to avoid misinterpretation.

    The body can be disposed by burial, cremation, or otherwise, whether you have done a necropsy or not. Check with your veterinarian about the options for disposing the body. In horses, it is not uncommon to bury the body (which is not always legal), or send the body to a renderer, where the horse's tissues are processed into soap and other byproducts. This is probably the most difficult step to digest by the owner, and understandably so. It's the last and most demeaning aspect of owning a large animal. Whole body cremation, while available in some areas, is very costly, and therefore only parts of the body can be cremated, but the ashes of your horse are indeed returned.

    In summary, your veterinarian will help you make the decision about autopsy, do the autopsy in most cases, or provide relevant background to the pathologist, communicate with the insurance company, and assist you in removing the body. Sometimes if you think ahead a bit about these issues, you can spend more time and energy comforting yourself and others about your loss.

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