Every once in a while I like to trot out the subject of the lowly necropsy. In case you're wondering, that's "necropsy" — as in the veterinary term for a post mortem examination. Which, as some of you might already know, is among the most stressful topics veterinarians have to discuss with their clients.
After all, a necropsy can be important for all kinds of reasons, but mostly because knowing what lies beneath is critical to a scientist's understanding of the disease process(es) at hand. And stressful, of course, because asking owners for permission to investigate their pet's remains is a necessarily emotional situation requiring extreme sensitivity and a deft way with words.
And yet many of us are keenly aware that to investigate after death is to advance our skills for the betterment of animal medicine. All of which I kept in mind when writing this column for The Miami Herald a couple of weeks ago:
Q: Our dog Sunny died suddenly last week. She was only seven years old. Because our neighbor is always complaining about her barking at the squirrels whenever we let her out, we suspect he may have poisoned her. But when we asked for a post mortem examination our veterinarian referred us to the University of Florida's pathology department, where it costs a small fortune to have her remains examined. And we'd have to pay to have her shipped there or drive her frozen body up to Gainesville ourselves!
This whole experience has been trying, to say the least, and it would be so much easier if our vet would do the job. So how come veterinarians don't do autopsies? Do you know any vets here that will?
A: Not to split hairs but, strictly speaking, an autopsy is when a human performs a post mortem ("after death") examination of another human. Necropsy is the appropriate term for any such evaluation performed on an animal. And almost all veterinarians perform them.
The problem in this case is primarily this: Because general practitioners like myself have not obtained extra training and board certification in pathology, in many cases we feel as if we might be doing you and your deceased loved ones a disservice in a situation where a legal case is possible.
Moreover, we put ourselves at the mercy of the judicial system's often frustrating machinations when we undertake forensic cases. This can be especially trying for general practitioner veterinarians unaccustomed to a career in which depositions and legal wrangling are a requirement.
Forensic pathologists at the University of Florida are not only better equipped, professionally, their facilities are armed with the ideal instrumentation required for a forensic necropsy.
It's nonetheless the case that many practitioners in South Florida do feel comfortable performing forensic necropsies (for the record, I am not one of them). Still more will undertake these procedures as a preliminary step for any forensic necropsy so they can rule out any obvious causes of death before sending your pet's remains on to a more specialized veterinary facility (the University of Florida in the closest I know of).
As to the issue of the expense: Because in forensic cases (as in many others where a definitive cause of death is sought) multiple laboratory tests performed, the expense of a necropsy can climb precipitously.
Whatever you decide to do, please accept my condolences for your loss.
While I'm at it, perhaps you should accept my apologies for recycling some recent work. I do hope you'll consider, perhaps, that I'm currently in London working on an investigative pet food piece for USA Today. It's tough, you know, being on the job in more than one venue at a time.
Still, the topic of necropsy is a big deal to me. Which is why I'll now ask the inevitable question:
Would you consent to a necropsy for your pet if your vet requested one?
Dr. Patty Khuly