The groom cries when she finds the five dead horses, one of which is her favorite riding horse, Bossy. What killed them so suddenly? Are the other horses infected? Why did Bossy and the others die? She reports the losses to the owner of the 100-horse breeding farm, who immediately calls the veterinarian to do a gross necropsy on the dead horses. (Necropsy is the animal equivalent of an autopsy.)

The veterinarian collects various organ samples and submits them to the diagnostic laboratory. Microscopic examinations of the tissues reveals that the muscles and kidneys are the primary organs affected. These results are forwarded to the veterinarian with the recommendation to thoroughly examine the pasture for toxic plants. The veterinarian complies and identifies areas of the pasture containing white snakeroot plants. Portions of many of the plants have been eaten. Toxicologic testing is then performed on samples recovered during necropsy, and the plant toxin is demonstrated in the tissues submitted.

"Necropsies aid in the rapid detection of diseases within a herd, thereby minimizing financial losses by the implementation of early treatment or management decisions," says Dr. Keith Bailey, veterinarian and pathologist formerly with the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine at Urbana. "If the cause of death is infectious in nature, the information gained from the necropsy enables the owner to protect the remaining herd or subsequent horses against similar infections. Determining the cause of death of a horse also helps provide closure to many horse owners who might be grieving the loss of their beloved horse." It helps to know why the horse is gone.

"Necropsies are also a valuable tool for veterinarians because they can provide confirmation of a suspected clinical condition, or alternatively, provide an answer for a puzzling clinical presentation," explains Dr. Bailey. If the necropsy solves the dilemma of your horse’s condition, it may help other horses with similar symptoms.

At the College’s Laboratory of Veterinary Diagnostic Medicine, a necropsy may be viewed by many veterinary students and thus serve as a valuable teaching tool, providing insight into disease processes. The fourth year veterinary student spends a 3 week rotation in the diagnostic medicine block, listening to lectures and performing necropsies under the supervision of pathologists and pathology residents.

"The fact that necropsies often ‘benefit science’ by elucidating the mechanisms and providing comparisons on various treatment modalities helps many owners opt to have a necropsy performed on their horse. Information received from necropsy allows clinicians and researchers opportunities to expand current trends in disease diagnosis and treatment. A necropsy also aids in the recognition of new or foreign diseases as well as the re-emergence of previously eradicated diseases," explains Dr. Bailey.

"In addition, necropsies may identify genetic or heritable defects in various animal species which may serve as animal models for human disease. Identification of such defects affords the medical community a model in which to study these diseases with the hope of hastening a treatment or cure."

The time it will take for veterinarians to do a necropsy on your horse depends on the cause of death. "It may be as simple as looking at of the affected organ systems with the naked eye (gross examination) or as difficult as performing five or ten tests, many of which are highly specialized and at the molecular level," says Dr. Bailey. Diagnostic tests might include culturing bacteria, blood screening, examining for viruses, analyzing for toxins, or using an electron microscope.

The cost of the necropsy may vary from laboratory to laboratory. At the College, a necropsy can range from $20 to $75 dollars with an average around $40 per case. The cost will depend on how many tests need to be run to find the cause of death.

If you want to bury your horse’s body, be sure to make that request of your veterinarian before sending your horse to necropsy.

Losing your horse can be a difficult time. "The special bond between a horse and horse owner is impossible to understand by non-horse people. It often helps to talk about the emotional impact of the loss of such a bond with someone who does understand," says Julia Brannan, third year veterinary student and founder of the C.A.R.E. (Companion Animal Related Emotions) Helpline. If you or someone you know would like support in dealing with the death of a companion animal, please call (217) 244-CARE.

For more information about necropsies, contact your local equine veterinarian.

Contributed By: Sarah Probst (Information Specialist)
University of Illinois / College of Veterinary Medicine

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