Autopsies on pets
Did you know that a person can have an autopsy done on their pet? Your first reaction may be to cringe; nobody likes to think about their pet being dissected. But autopsies provide information that no other test can. While your pet was alive, your veterinarian used tests like blood work and x-rays. These tests are used to help figure out what the problem is that is inside of the pet’s body. During an autopsy, we can very often actually see the problem without having to guess.
‘Autopsy’ is a term more commonly used for people. In veterinary medicine, the terms ‘necropsy’ and ‘post-mortem’ are more often used. All of these words basically mean the same thing. Your dog, cat or pet will be opened and explored in a routine manner. Very often tissue samples will be taken. Tissue samples can be cultured (to find bacteria) and can also be looked at under a microscope. Some problems cannot be seen with the naked eye, but are very clear once seen under a microscope.
Why are autopsies done on animals? Autopsies are quite common in food animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens. Routine autopsies are used to determine the health of the herd, and can also be used to diagnose a potentially disastrous disease, like Mad Cow Disease or rabies. Autopsies are not as common in pets as in food animals. This is partially because pet owners often go through more extensive tests while the pet is alive. Therefore, the cause of death is usually already known. However, some pet deaths still go unexplained. In these cases, an autopsy is always an option. This procedure is often used to give the owner and veterinarian peace of mind. Sometimes knowing the cause of death will help an owner understand and deal with their pet’s death. But remember, although an autopsy will likely provide you with the cause of death, there will always be a few animals that are impossible to diagnose, even with an autopsy.
On the other hand, some owners are appalled at the idea of having an autopsy done on their pet. After an emotionally-straining death, the thought of the pet being cut open is simply too much to handle. Other owners accept the death and do not feel the need to have a final diagnosis. Also, cost must always be considered. An autopsy will cost you money, just like medication or a surgery would.
Who does the autopsy? There are really only two options. You can either ask your veterinarian to do the autopsy or you can bring the body to a referral hospital. The referral hospital must have a post-mortem lab that has vets who specialize in autopsies. Even though your veterinarian is not trained specifically to do autopsies, his/her knowledge of anatomy and previous experience with autopsies often leads to a successful diagnosis. Veterinary post mortem labs are fairly uncommon.
Once the autopsy is done, you will most likely be given results from the autopsy and from the tissue samples taken. It is very important that you go over these results with your veterinarian, because the reports often contain confusing technical terms. Also, your veterinarian is familiar with the animal and will be able to help you interpret the report and understand how the diagnosis caused the clinical signs and ultimately, death.
Even though euthanasia and the death of a pet are stressful times, you need to be able to make the decision to do an autopsy immediately. If too much time passes, the body will not be in proper condition to provide any useful information during the autopsy.
Having an autopsy done on your pet is not a fun subject to discuss. But it is a real option for owners of a pet with an unexplained death. Autopsy is a final way to give some people peace of mind. Hopefully this is never a decision that you have to make, but at least now you know your options.
By Ashley O’DSriscoll – Pets.ca writer