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Necropsies and what to do when a puppy dies

Updated: Jan 4, 2023

First if you've lost a puppy and you are reading this, I'm so sorry. It's a horrible occupational risk that we encounter, and if you breed long enough it's unavoidable.

If you lose a puppy, you'll want to know or confirm the cause because the last thing we want is for this to happen again. So it is important to consider having a necropsy (a postmortem exam or autopsy for animals) done if you have a puppy that has suddenly died.

Why are necropsies important?

A necropsy can provide valuable information about the neonate's health and any underlying causes of death that could affect other dogs in your breeding program. A necropsy can help identify infectious or genetic diseases, assess the dog's nutrition, and evaluate other factors such as environmental toxins.

There are a number of important reasons to have a necropsy performed.

  • Death without a clear cause

  • If you suspect a disease, such as canine herpes virus or brucellosis

  • If you suspect a genetic condition

  • To help determine the best course of treatment for surviving puppies

  • To confirm a diagnosis

  • To help prevent future deaths

  • To see if treatment had any effect

  • To rule out any zoonoses that can infect humans

Particularly if you lost all or multiple puppies, two of the most important things to want to determine from a necropsy are whether they died from canine herpes virus or brucellosis. Brucellosis is transmissible to humans and is a reportable disease in many states (but not in Canada). It's not as highly transmissible to pet owners, but veterinary professionals and breeders are at higher risk because of the greater exposure to bodily fluids. It's becoming more and more common in the United States and is a devastating disease. Brucellosis is very hard to treat. Euthanasia is the most common result of brucellosis.

It is important to remember that in some cases the necropsy may not reveal the cause of the puppy's clinical signs or demise.

Helping your breed and improving canine health in the future

Canine geneticist, Danika Bannasch of UC Davis, points out that necropsies are important to help identify disease genes.

She shared in a Facebook group that "Necropsies have allowed us to identify a new mutation in Tollers for sudden death in young adults. While they are incredibly difficult for owners- it is also a chance to give back to the breed." If you want to contribute to this important research, ask if they can send samples from the necropsy for DNA to a research storage lab or a researcher.

How to preserve the body

As soon as you discover a deceased puppy, it is important to cool the puppy's body as quickly as possible. This can be done by placing the puppy in a leak-proof plastic bag (preferably a zip-lock type) and cooling its core body temperature in a refrigerator (ideal) or with ice or an insulated cooler.

Cooling the dog's body helps preserve the tissue for more detailed examination when the samples are sent to a laboratory for analysis. It also prevents decomposition which could render any results obtained from a necropsy useless. A deceased puppy can be refrigerated for 2-3 days maximum.

Freezing should be avoided if possible. If you won't be able to ship the puppy to the lab for necropsy within that time period, then you can freeze the puppy, but freezing can kill bacteria and damage some tissue and is not as ideal as refrigeration.

The necropsy report

You'll usually get the necropsy report within a week. The necropsy includes the time of death, circumstances, potential causes, and any findings such as infectious diseases, trauma, or injury.

The examining veterinarian will perform a systematic examination, starting with an external exam, that is similar to those done during regular checkups. After that, they do an internal examination and look at each organ while they are still in the body cavity. Next, organs are removed, examined, and dissected and tissue and fluid samples are taken and processed and/or preserved. About 75 percent of necropsies are able to result in a diagnosis. The remaining 25 percent are either not definitive, or partially able to rule out certain diseases or conditions.

Some of the results you'll see on a report include

  • Gross results refer to the observations of the body and internal organs done with the naked eye (without a microscope or any magnification).

  • Microscopic/histopathological results refer to samples of tissue and fluids that were taken during the postmortem exam and looked at under a microscope.

  • Microbiology looks for the presence of viruses and bacteria. These are obtained by taking samples of fluids or tissues and using culture methods or PCR or genomic tests.

  • Toxicology is the examination of samples to determine if there were any poisons or any signs of the effects of poisons. These samples are typically, but now always, take from the urine or the liver. Often, samples are sent out to another specialty lab for toxicology and may take a little extra time to process.

  • Radiological results are obtained from taking x-rays or other imaging, such as CAT scans or MRIs; however x-ray is the most common.

Knowing the cause of your puppy's death can provide important information to help prevent future incidents in your breeding program. If you have any questions about having a necropsy done on your dog, please contact your veterinarian for more information. They will be able to help you understand the process and its associated costs.

Is a biopsy the same as a necropsy?

A biopsy is not the same a a necropsy. A necropsy is an exam on a deceased animal. A biopsy is a sample from a living animal taken to help with a diagnosis.

Who performs necropsies?

Necropsies are generally, but not always, performed by board certified pathologists. Other specialists can perform necropsies as well.

If you decide to have a necropsy done on a puppy, you should contact your veterinarian who will refer you to an appropriate facility where they will perform the procedure. The process involves collecting tissue samples from the body and performing a detailed examination of the dog's organs and body systems.

Most states and veterinary colleges have diagnostic laboratories that perform necropsies. Most of these require submission for necropsy to be done by a vet, so you'll have to ask your vet to ship the deceased puppy for you.

What is the cost of a necropsy?

Necropsies usually cost between $100 and $1500, but usually closer to the lower end of this cost range if you use a state or public vet school lab. Most are in the $100-300 range. If you have your veterinary clinic do the shipping for you to the lab there are often additional prep and shipping costs added.

Some vets have never submitted deceased pets for necropsies. If they don't have a lab they regularly use, you can refer them to one of the more well-known necropsy providers such as Cornell University, University of Florida, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, or Necropsy Services Group (very expensive). Most state veterinarian health official offices (the "state veterinarian") have laboratories that perform necropsies as well.


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