What is a Necropsy? - Meaning and Understanding

By MarĂ­a Besteiros, Expert veterinary assistant and canine/feline hairdresser.. July 10, 2019
What is a Necropsy? - Meaning and Understanding

It is possible you have not heard of a necropsy. It is a procedure which, unless you are a veterinary student, you only become aware of when it is needed. Unfortunately, you are most likely to become aware of it when a companion animal dies. It may be described to you by a veterinarian just after the death of a pet. However, you may possibly have heard the term and are interested in learning more. Perhaps a necropsy has been explained to you, but the emotion of the moment meant you missed some key information.

AnimalWised is here to answer what is a necropsy? We explain the procedure and help you decide if this is something you should pursue for your animal.

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What is a necropsy?

We can best describe a necropsy as a study of an animal's body after they have become deceased. In a veterinary clinic, the common procedure involves opening the abdominal and thoracic cavities. This allows for the visual examination of all the organs. In the abdomen, we can find the stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, pancreas, spleen, bladder and uterus (the latter if the animal is female). In the thorax, we can see the lungs and heart. The necropsy may also include opening the skull and examining the brain. Opening the cranium will take specific tools, including a bone saw to open the skull itself.

In addition to examining internal organs, a necropsy will allow us to see directly if there are any fluid accumulations inside the body. These may include pus (showing signs of infection), blood (meaning an internal hemorrhage) or other fluid (possibly an edema). These will be able to tell us if there have been any specific pathologies or injuries which have lead to the death of the animal.

When the organs are reviewed, each one can be dissected individually. This can give us important information, especially if we are looking for the presence of neoplasms (such as tumors) or organ failure. An example of the latter may be kidney disease showing marks in the kidneys. All this revision will be made on the macroscopic level. If further research needs to be carried out, then tissue samples, fluids or anything else which is collected during the necropsy can be sent to a laboratory for testing at the microscopic level. A report with its findings will be sent back to the veterinarian and relayed to the guardian.

By examining the body and finding out this information, the cause of death can be established. However, before performing a necropsy, it is very important to know that conclusive results are not always possible. Sometimes a necropsy can only help us to hypothesize what has caused the animal's death. They may also be able to let us know if there is any danger to other animals or even people in the household.

What is a Necropsy? - Meaning and Understanding - What is a necropsy?

Differences between autopsy and autopsy

If we review the definitions of autopsy and necropsy in medical ditionaries, we can see that their definitions are essentially synonymous[1]. They will be some version of “the examination of a body after death”. However, the difference between necropsy and autopsy is its common usage. While they may essentially mean the same thing, the term ‘necropsy’ is more commonly used to refer to the postmortem examination of an animal rather than a human being. In these terms, a necropsy is essentially the autopsy of an animal.

Types of necropsy

In veterinary clinics, routine necropsies are carried out to try to discover the cause of death of an animal. This is usually only done if there is doubt over the cause of death or there is some specific reason why knowing the cause will provide benefit.

However, there are other reasons for necropsies. Many are carried out for academic or research purposes. These may be due to the animal having a specific disease which is already known, but the necropsy can help veterinary medical professionals better understand its nature. They may also want to see how far the pathology has progressed and better understand its affect on the body.

Occasionally, the necropsy may be compulsory if there is suspicion the animal has been felled by a disease which needs to be declared to the authorities. This is because there may be a risk of epidemic and still living animals (and humans) need to be protected. One example might be suspicion of the animal dying of rabies. This will likely mean the animal body will be sent to a specific research facility.

Veterinary necropsy

The usual case will be that a necropsy will be carried out in the veterinary clinic. The procedure will not require many tools. Most often, the case will simply need a scalpel, gloves, suitable operating table and something to hold the samples. More advanced necropsies may need bone saws to open cavities or clamps to keep them open. A necropsy will need the permission of the owner of the deceased animal, unless there is cause for wider concern (such as a potential rabies outbreak).

Generally necropsies will not be very long procedures. The animal will be sutured up and given to the owner for burial. However, it is possible the animal will be incinerated afterwards if this has been agreed upon. There may be certain procedural differences depending on the legislation of a given country.

A veterinarian will be trained to perform this animal autopsy. They are most commonly carried out on canines, but they are also carried out on other animals such as cats and birds. Necropsies on so called ‘exotic pets’ are not as common and may require a specialist to be carried out effectively.

What is a Necropsy? - Meaning and Understanding - Veterinary necropsy

Should I have a necropsy performed on my pet?

When your companion animal dies, it is possible you will be aware they were ill beforehand. However, if your animal dies unexpectedly, you may want to have a necropsy performed to be sure. As we have said, if there are signs or symptoms that a commutable disease is present, the veterinarian may have to insist. In most cases, this will not be the case.

If you are unsure why your animal died and you want to find out more information, you can request a necropsy. However, in cases where this is not imperative, you will likely be charged an often considerable fee. A necropsy will never return your animal to life and health. It may be better to accept the loss, begin the grieving process and use the money elsewhere. It will be a personal decision what you choose.

This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to What is a Necropsy? - Meaning and Understanding, we recommend you visit our Other health problems category.


1 The Free Dictionary. (n.d.). Necropsy. Retrieved July 10, 2019 from,

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