Necropsy key to understanding end of life
Post-mortem examinations (known as a necropsy for post-mortem examinations on animals), are common fodder from crime detective shows on television. But what people see on television usually is a far cry from the reality of these examinations.
Given their very nature, necropsies often are messy, time consuming and, frustratingly, sometimes inconclusive. If that’s the case, why are necropsies strongly recommended for dogs enrolled in the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study? Although advances in testing techniques have vastly improved our ability to diagnose diseases ante-mortem (prior to death), the necropsy remains one of the best methods available to confirm a diagnosis.
Most necropsies follow a typical pattern. The examination starts with a detailed look at the outside of the deceased. Then each internal organ is carefully examined, including the contents of organs such as the stomach. Finally, small samples are taken of the internal organs for further testing. These tests include evaluation under a microscope (similar to biopsy samples), culture for infectious agents, and occasionally other specialized tests.
Determining the cause of death can be difficult. On the surface, it would seem easy, but sometimes necropsy findings are not so straightforward. We’ve often heard people report that an individual “died of complications related to…” This statement indicates that while an individual was known to have a certain disease, another problem was the actual cause of death. For example, we know that dogs with cancer receive drugs that suppress their immune systems, making them susceptible to infection. If the infection is severe enough, it can be the cause of the dog’s death. Both diagnoses, the cancer and the infection, need to be considered in the evaluation of the patient.
Occasionally, a necropsy will reveal something unexpected, often called an “incidental finding.” The pathologist will look at these unexpected results and clinical history provided to determine whether findings are clinically important, or truly “incidental.”
As we look to discover correlations between disease and lifestyle, genetics and environments, necropsies can provide important clues. This is particularly true in cases of sudden death, where the cause of death may not be obvious. One example of this is a blood clot to the heart or the brain that would show no symptoms ahead of time. There would be no clues to the cause of this sudden death, until the clot was found upon necropsy. For many, the findings of a necropsy, when definitive, not only point to the cause of death, but may provide some comfort in knowing and understanding what happened.
Regardless of the final necropsy findings, all the data gathered during these evaluations is important to the success of the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study.