ISSN 2398-2950      

Post-mortem technique


Synonym(s): Necropsy, autopsy, postmortem examination, PME



  • To determine the cause of death in a single animal (when either the owner or veterinarian wishes to understand the cause of death).
  • To determine the cause of death in a multiple animal case (when such information may help prevent further deaths, or aid in determining appropriate therapy, in remaining animals within the group at risk).
  • To confirm or refute the clinical diagnosis (clinical audit and quality control/morbidity and mortality investigations).
  • To check whether other lesions were overlooked (clinical audit and quality control).
  • To refine the diagnosis or more clearly define the extent of the lesion(s).
  • To confirm or refute the validity of interpretations made using ancillary aids such as radiography, ultrasonography, clinical chemistry, MRI etc (providing feedback to allow retrospective assessment of the original data in the light of the morphological findings post-mortem).
  • For research (in experimental or regulatory procedures).
  • For education (in both undergraduate and post-graduate environments).
  • For legal purposes, eg suspected poisoning or other malicious act, also to confirm or refute allegations of cruelty, to confirm or refute allegations of incompetence such as might occur after post-surgical or intra-operative deaths, to satisfy criteria for insurance claims.


  • Aiding client grieving process after unexpected deaths, usually by providing some form of closure.
  • Providing information which may prevent further deaths in other animals at risk. This is a key diagnostic step used in farm animal disease investigations and should not be overlooked in companion animal outbreaks, eg amongst litters of puppies/kittens.
  • Providing an important means of quality assessment and clinical audit in diagnosis.
  • Providing information which should allow more accurate interpretation of ancillary diagnostic aids, including imaging techniques, ie the provision of ground-truth data which may be used to fact check or compare to data received by other means.
  • Allows discovery of new diseases, or confirmation of absence of specified diseases, such as spongiform encephalopathies in the domestic environment.
  • Provides evidence for resolution of legal issues.
  • The knowledge gained helps professional satisfaction and client satisfaction.


  • Requires specific facilities, equipment and expertise to achieve the best outcome.
  • Incurs costs (capital, professional and material).
  • May spread disease if adequate precautions are not undertaken.
  • Safety issues require addressing (risk of infection, risks of injury from equipment).


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Further Reading


Refereed papers

  • Recent references from PubMed and VetMedResource.
  • Ribas L M et al (2020) Post-Mortem CT vs Necropsy in Feline Medicine.J Feline Med Surg 22(12), 1206-1213 PubMed
  • Various authors (1986) Necropsy techniques. Vet Clin North Am Food Animal Pract (1), 1-202 PubMed.
  • Liu S K (1983) Post mortem examination of the heart. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract 13 (2), 379-94 PubMed.

Other sources of information

  • Mcdonough S P & Southard T (2017) Necropsy Guide for Dogs, Cats, and Small Mammals. Ames (Iowa), Wiley Blackwell.
  • Ginsberg J R, Alexander K A, Cleaveland S L, Creel S R, Creel N M, Kock N, Malcolm J R, McNutt J W, Mills M G L & Wayne R K.The IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group's African Wild Dog Status Survey and Action Plan (1997) Appendix 2 Some techniques for Studying Wild Dogs (online).Available World Wide Web URL: (accessed 14 June 2001). (Contains a field technique for examination of wild dogs, from which the tip on sampling the brain via the foramen magnum was obtained.)
  • Summers B A Cummings J F, de Lahunta A (1995) Veterinary Neuropathy. Mosby. ISBN 0-8016-6328-8. (Chapter 1 includes a section on CNS examination.)
  • Jubb K V F, Kennedy P C, Palmer N (Eds) (1992) The Cardiovascular System. Pathology of Domestic Animals. 4th edn. Vol 3, Ch 1. Academic Press Inc, London, pp 7-8. (Normal cardiac weights for various species, selection of blocks for histology.)
  • King J M, Dodd D C, Roth L, Newson M E The Necropsy Book. Charles Louis Davis DVM Foundation Publisher 6245 Formoor Lane, Gurnee, Il 60031 USA.
  • Nicholls P K (1993) Post-mortem examination of the dog. (video, 34 minutes - University of Cambridge, UK). (An example of one method for canine necropsy, much of which is directly applicable to the cat.)
  • Kelly D F, Lucke V M, Gaskell C J (1982) Notes on pathology for small animal clinicians.Wright, PSG, London. ISBN 00-7336-0657-9. (Sections on necropsy technique, agonal changes, common incidental findings and post-mortem changes.)
  • Palmer A C (1976) Introduction to animal neurology. 2nd edn. Blackwell Scientific. (Contains a useful section on removal of the brain and spinal cord from several species.)


  • State or National Veterinary Service.
  • Forensic or analytical laboratories.
  • Pathology Departments of Veterinary Schools.
  • Commercial pathology services.

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