Would You Consent to a Necropsy for Your Pet?

Medical articles

Have you ever heard the word “necropsy?” Know what it means? According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, here’s the correct definition:

nec•rop•sy: noun \ˈne-ËŒkräp-sÄ“\ autopsy; especially: an autopsy performed on an animal

According to veterinarians, however, a necropsy is any post-mortem examination conducted on an animal (as opposed to a human). Which makes sense seeing as the prefix, “auto,” as used in the word “autopsy,” means “self,” as in humans performing post mortem examinations on other humans.

I offer you this brief explanation by way of intro to the subject of necropsy in veterinary medicine. Which, as some of you might already know, is among the most stressful topics we veterinarians sometimes feel compelled to discuss with our clients. After all, asking owners for permission to investigate their pet's remains is an emotional situation that requires extreme sensitivity and an agile way with words.

In case you’re wondering why we’d ever have cause to raise such a fraught issue, let me explain:

A necropsy can be important for all kinds of reasons, but mostly because knowing what led to an animal’s death can be critical to a veterinarian’s understanding of the disease(s) at hand. Indeed, to investigate after death is to advance our skills for the betterment of animal medicine as a whole.

And yet, the lowly necropsy is uncommonly undertaken in a general practice setting. Here are a trio of examples explaining when a necropsy might be in order:

  1. Medical curiosity: Your cat’s been sick for weeks and your veterinarians were stumped. They’d requested several expensive tests to help tease out the cause but things looked bleak so you elected euthanasia. She may be gone, but they still want to know why. In this case, consenting to a necropsy might well help future cats who suffer from similar signs.

  2. Foul play: One of my clients had a seven year old Golden Retriever. His neighbor had threatened to “do away with her” as a result of her barking behavior. So when she died unexpectedly in the yard, they suspected foul play. A necropsy was instrumental in establishing that she died of bloat (gastric dilatation volvulus) and not by the neighbor’s hand.

  3. Welfare issues: In a recent high profile case, a dog in Ohio was exhumed and a necropsy performed after his owner was accused of having abused and neglected him. Veterinarians positively identified the dog (via microchip) and determined that the dog was seriously underweight relative to a previous weight.

But it’s not always as easy as all that. In example #1, the veterinarian has to broach a difficult subject with a grieving owner. Nice as I thought I was about it, in one case I was accused of extreme insensitivity after asking if I could perform a necropsy.

In examples #2 and #3, it’s even more complicated due to the legal issues potentially in play. That’s because conducting a forensic necropsy puts us at the mercy of the judicial system’s often stressful workings. This can be especially trying for general practitioner veterinarians unaccustomed to a career in which depositions and other legal machinations are considered a necessary evil.

Which is why, for forensic cases, we’ll often refer you to a board certified pathologist for a necropsy. These veterinary specialists are not only uniquely trained to weather the onslaught of such legal wranglings, they’re far better equipped to perform the necropsy itself.

But here’s where the issue of necropsy expense is worth noting. In forensic cases (as in any where a definitive cause of death is sought), multiple sophisticated laboratory tests are performed (toxicology, histopathology, etc.) and the expense of a necropsy can sometimes prove extreme –– unaffordable, even.

On the other hand, when your veterinarian asks you for permission to perform a necropsy in the interest of her own knowledge base, she’ll typically waive the fee altogether. But here’s where I ask the inevitable question: Would YOU consent to a necropsy for your pet if your vet requested one?