Determining the Cause of Death: The need for Necropsies
April 2005
JP Yousha, Chmn. Health & Welfare Committee, GDCA. 

When one of our dogs dies, our grief over the loss is what is normally foremost in our minds. These are our cherished companions, so quite naturally our emotional state can overwhelm us as they leave us. But as these dogs we own are also members of a breed we cherish, we have obligations to fulfill to that breed, and one of them is carefully recording the cause of death in our dogs. Therefore when we have any of our dogs die we should consider having a necropsy done as a standard procedure. This is particularly important to perform when an animal dies suddenly or when one of our dogs dies young.

Necropsy, an autopsy on an animal, simply put, is an examination of the body after death. Its purpose is to determine the cause of death. A necropsy is roughly divided into two portions, the gross post-mortem examination, where the body is visually and manually examined, and the histopathology portion, where organs and sections of tissue are sent off to be further examined in detail by a pathologist, typically at a referral laboratory or teaching hospital. To help such an examination achieve its purpose, a complete medical history of the animal is also useful. In addition other testing (such as blood work) at the time of death may be relevant. Necropsies are a teaching tool for all involved. They can help veterinarians learn more about the animals under their care, and so apply lessons learned to future patients. They can further medical research. And they can provide breeders with important data about their dogs and so help them make more informed breeding decisions.

The cost of a necropsy will vary. A simple gross examination by your attending veterinarian when a dog dies in his care may not be charged to you. A full necropsy with extensive histopathology reports requested might run a few hundred dollars. The cost can generally be estimated up front, and if economies need be made, reasonable compromises can be reached. But in general a necropsy is something that should be considered for every dog related to a breeding family, and is truly necessary when there is doubt about the cause of death, when the dog dies while still young, or when a seemingly healthy dog dies suddenly and unexpectedly. A necropsy can and should be performed immediately upon death, and the dog’s remains can be returned to the family without delay.

Not all necropsies will return a definite cause of death. However all necropsies will be able to rule out some potential causes of death and will typically at least make specific reasons more or less likely. Both the negative data (what wasn’t the cause) and the positive data (what is most likely responsible) are useful to the breeder/owner and are relevant to the dog’s family. For example if a four year old male were to be found dead, a necropsy could determine that the dog’s heart was normal and he wasn’t poisoned, even if it couldn’t specify that the dog died, for example of splenic torsion. Necropsies, in conjunction with the animal’s medical history, can always offer more complete data as to a dog’s health status. This is relevant to every family of breed dogs and useful pedigree data that should not be left uncollected. For all the laboratory work may take some weeks to come back, the results from the initial (gross) examination should be readily available. The data can be stored at your veterinarian’s and left there until you feel you can manage hearing about the information comfortably. Your veterinarian can also provide you a synopsis of the results to share with relevant parties. Others that own related dogs are especially in need of necropsy data. Granted some unpleasant answers may be found whenever any sort of formal testing on a dog is done, and a necropsy is always an unpleasant task to contemplate. But in our greater responsibility to our dogs and to the breed, we cannot allow our emotions and our fears to guide our actions. We cannot allow ourselves to turn away from this fact-finding mission when it comes to our dogs, as what happens to them in life and at their deaths affect not only us, but other owners and members of the dogs’ families directly, and may also be relevant to the breed in general. So we have a greater responsibility than to our own private grief when we choose to own breed dogs. And we need to be brave at this last and terrible moment for the sake of the breed and especially other members of the immediate family. We have to simply take on the extra personal pain involved so as to seek all the information we can about our dogs, because it means a potentially better future for us all. When the cause of death isn’t obvious, when a dog dies suddenly or dies young, a necropsy is in order.

It's hard to not flinch from this idea when your beloved dog has just died, and it’s understandable to want to remember them fondly and without conflict. We all want to be left alone to grieve in the moment they are lost to us. Necropsies are not something most of us want to think about, and they can bring up questions we’d all rather not face. But it's not acting in our best interests to not seek the answers that the breed needs; it’s simply part of our acting as responsible breeders to assemble cause of death data on our dogs. (After all, it’s part of the pattern of what our breeding stock represents.) So the most loving act, and the best legacy any breed dog can have, is for his owner/breeder to have cared enough about his place in the breed to be sure that a complete record of the dog is left behind.


Comparison of clinical and pathological diagnoses in dogs. Vos JH, Borst GH, Visser IJ, Soethout KC, de Haan L, Haffmans F, Hovius MP, Goedendorp P, de Groot MA, Prud'homme van Reine FH, van Soest IL, Willigenburg AH, van Woerden MA, Ziekman PG. Vet Q. 2005;27(1):2-10.


Permission to reprint as submitted for educational purposes is given.
Submitted by JP Yousha, Chair, H&W Committee, GDCA 2004