The importance of necropsies

An autopsy done on animals is called necropsy – study of death. The word autopsy is used only for human dissections – it means study of self.

Necropsies and serologic testing are the only ways to know exactly what your rats carried or died from.

Having problems finding a vet willing to do one? Your vet could air mail the body, on ice, to another place that might be interested in the procedure. MSU’s rat necropsy price is currently at $90. Charles River labs and the University of Missouri RADIL are labs that focus on laboratory animals – they might have a cheaper price also.

Human health care professionals will (and should) be reluctant to help you out. Although they have a grasp of human health issues, they do not have experience with the varieties and differences in anatomy that animals have. Whole classes at both the undergraduate and graduate level are devoted just to, say, Comparative Digestive Anatomy of Non-Ruminants or Musculoskeletal Diseases of ‘Large Breed’ Canines.

The refrigerator is the best place for a dead animal that is to be sent out for necropsy. A frozen body must be thawed, which can damage tissues, and leaving a body out in the open just causes decay. The best thing, other than a live animal that has just been put down, is one that has been kept cold, and on ice, but not frozen.

Returning the body to you after it has been necropsied is downright dangerous. Once an animal has been opened up and exposed to other dead animals, it can carry those other animals’ pathogens back out into the world, if not properly disposed of. There would be no way to control this, and this is how some epidemics are started. MSU DCPAH’s policy is to never return bodies. Their bodies are so cut up and in so many pieces after necropsy that it wouldn’t be worth it, either. The vet or lab should allow the remains to be sent to a licensed pet cemetery if you so desire. If you don’t want a burial, then the bodies are generally disposed of in a mass cremation.

Finding causes of death is sometimes difficult. Of the animals that we process, maybe 1/15 never have a cause of death found after the whole battery of tests. It’s impossible to guarantee a result of any necropsy.

You could open up your rat yourself and take a look, but, and I’m going to be brutally honest here, you will NOT find anything! You are not a student of pathology nor veterinary internal medicine. Unless you know the insides of a rat are supposed to look like, and it’s very hard to know them inside and out (no pun intended), you will not find anything. You may find an unusual looking lump somewhere, but it could be one of dozens of kinds of tumors, a cyst, an abscess, or the actual organ. Knowing that there was ‘something’ ‘somewhere’ in your rat is useless, and in some cases could be detrimental to knowledge. What if you told everyone and the breeder that you found a tumor, when in fact it was just a kidney? Comparing organs to a picture or sketch in a book will not yield any results either. You need first hand experience in this.

Even the pathologists at MSU consult other colleagues, and they already have doctorates in clinical pathology. I wouldn’t trust Debbie D. to do a necropsy on my rats – live rat and animal behavior experience is totally different from pathology. Pathologists go to school for 8 to 12 years studying the subtleties of different pathogens, and they’re still learning.

Let a pathologist necropsy your animal, and you’ll be sure that they’ll retain that information for later use, collaborate with other doctors and share their new information, and perhaps be so inspired to coordinate a whole study on your rat’s cause of death. They deserve your passed rats to learn from! Don’t deprive them! :)

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