Postmortems: A Delicate Subject
Susan Brown, DVM
From the RMCA web site, July 2004
In this paper I will discuss an important but delicate subject that we would all rather not think about, and that is the postmortem, or examination of a pet's body after death. A post mortem is an important diagnostic tool without which our knowledge of pet medicine would be sorely lacking.
Death is an inevitable part of our experience here on this earth. I will not attempt to discuss the various philosophies associated with this phenomenon, but its existence is part of the normal cycle of nature. Whether you believe there is a rebirth after death or whether you believe it is an end, we cannot prevent it for ourselves or for our pets. Unfortunately Western society spends a great deal of time avoiding the subject, pretending it won't happen and taking desperate measures to try and stave it off, rather than accepting death as natural. Death brings with it an end, of course, sadness and certainly the grieving process, but it can also bring relief from suffering and great knowledge. The knowledge can come from what we learned from that being's spiritual and physical existence here, lessons such as love, forgiveness, laughter and letting go. We also can learn valuable lessons from that being's physical body, such as cause of disease, effectiveness of therapy, effects of diet, environment and genetics to name a few. Some of you will have spiritual beliefs that do not allow the physical body to be altered after death, which we sincerely respect. But for those of you that do not hold these beliefs then you may consider allowing that dear pet to reveal to us that last bit of knowledge that only examination of the physical body can reveal.
The correct name for the examination of the physical body is a postmortem, post meaning after and mortem meaning death. The term autopsy is used only for humans because auto means self and only refers to humans doing postmortems on the same species (self) which are other humans. Postmortems have been performed for thousands of years, primarily to determine the cause of death of the person or animal. Much of our medical knowledge comes from these examinations. Without postmortems, we would probably be hundreds of years behind in our ability to detect and manage disease. Therefore, the postmortem is vitally important to the future health and welfare of any species in question.
How long after death should a postmortem be performed? In order to gain the most useful information, a postmortem should be performed within 48 hours of death. It is particularly important to keep the deceased pet cool during this time. If the pet is kept at 70°F or higher, then decomposition will be rapid and 48 hours may be too long. In general, it is best to get the pet to the veterinarian as soon as possible after death and to keep the body cool (below 60 if possible), but NOT frozen. If the tissues freeze, the sharp ice crystals can damage them. This may affect the ability of a pathologist to access microscopic tissue samples accurately.
What actually happens during the postmortem examination? There are different ways that a postmortem can be approached. In some cases, only one feature of the pet will be examined, say an eye or the heart because that is where the problem was most prominent. However, most often the entire animal will be examined because we have found over the years that sometimes what is obvious during life is masking other disease that is only discovered after death. To get the whole or “holistic” picture, it is best to look at all the organ systems. To do this, it is necessary to make an incision on the underside of the pet from the neck to the anus in order to be able to open up the body cavities and take a look. Other incisions may have to be made in the extremities or head depending on what tissues need to be examined. Initially organs are examined in place to look for gross abnormalities. Eventually the organs will be removed for closer examination. The cause of disease may be obvious to the naked eye, but often it is necessary to take small samples of tissue and perform further testing such as microscopic examination, bacterial culture, and viral isolation or toxin assessment. The samples are usually small and can involve any organ in the body including blood, intestinal contents and bone. In addition, impression smears, where a glass slide is placed on the surface of the tissue lightly and the cells that cling to the slide are then looked at under the microscope, can provide a quick evaluation of the health of a variety of organs. Since the incision is surgical in nature, it is possible for the veterinarian to sew up the wound after the post mortem is completed. This is referred to as a “cosmetic postmortem” which returns the animals' physical body to as normal appearing state as possible.
Why should a postmortem be performed? After all it won't bring the pet back to life, so what is the point? The following are some of the important reasons to consider a postmortem examination for your pet:
So what is this going to cost me? Postmortems can have a wide range of costs depending on the practice and what is the goal of the postmortem examination. Some veterinarians offer postmortems free of charge only if it involves a patient that was under treatment at that hospital at the time of death. Others have specific costs involved depending on the size or species of patient or the extent of the postmortem. All veterinarians will charge for the pathologist's fees if samples are sent in for microscopic examination because the pathologist is charging the veterinarian for that service in addition to packaging the tissues, mailing them and the time involved in interpreting the results.
In conclusion, a postmortem examination can be an extremely useful tool in continuing our quest for knowledge on the improvement of health in our pets. Often veterinarians are hesitant to bring up the subject because it is so difficult to think about at the time of death and grief. Try to think about this subject and come to a decision about how you will proceed before the time comes. If you are not comfortable with a postmortem at any time, or with certain pets, your veterinarian will respect your decision and it should not be necessary to explain your position. This was your friend in life and it is ultimately your decision as what happens after death.
Copyright 2001 - 2004 by Susan Brown, DVM. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission from Dr. Brown's Small Mammal Health Series.