Preparing for a Necropsy
Updated: Jan 24, 2021
by Diana Uyen
We all want our birds to live long happy lives so we try very hard to provide the best care we can. Sometimes unforeseen circumstances happen, an accident, a sudden unexplained death, or death from an unresolved health issue. When this occurs, we find ourselves looking for answers. Often these answers can help with closure and teach us what protection or precautions we should use with other birds, especially if there is a possibility of a contagion. The best way to determine the actual cause of death is to have a necropsy performed. Necropsy is the term used for an autopsy on an animal.
This article is not meant to go into the details of a necropsy but to provide information on preparing a bird’s body for one. A necropsy should include histopathology, clinical pathology, microbiology, parasitology, and toxicology.
An example of the benefits of having a necropsy performed is Oliver, an Orange Winged Amazon. Oliver was losing weight, despite eating very well. Sometimes his appetite waned and he showed signs of not feeling well. His feces were fairly normal, and at times he seemed like he was feeling better and became more active and talkative. He was taken to an avian vet for an examination, full blood panel , fecal gram/stain, and X-ray.
It was suspected that Oliver had either Avian Bornavirus, possible metal toxicity, or an E-coli infection. E-coli was ruled out and there was no metal visible on the x-rays, but he did have an enlarged proventriculus so Bornavirus was the most likely diagnosis. Testing for Bornavirus was done and it came back negative.
Oliver was treated with two different rounds of antibiotics and anti-inflammatories with no change. He began showing signs of respiratory issues and became less active. Syringe feeding was given in addition to his normal diet to try to put some weight on him. All efforts had little to no effect on him and after a period of time Oliver passed away.
A call was made to an emergency vet (avian) to get directions on what to do if you're planning to have a necropsy performed. The directions are as follows:
Wet the bird wet with cold water and be sure not to let water get into mouth and nostrils
Wrap the bird in newspaper or damp towel and store in the refrigerator; do NOT freeze the body because this will damage the tissues nullifying some of the standard tests
It is not necessary to put the body in a plastic bag
Deliver the bird as soon as possible (within 24 hours) to the vet who will prepare samples that may be sent to pathology.
When the body is delivered to the Vet, you will be asked for details on what happened and approximate time of death (needed for pathologist).
For Oliver, it was 12 hours from his death to delivery to the Vet. The only testing requested was to determine the cause of death and ensure there was no contagion that would affect other birds. After about week, results were provided. The necropsy showed that Oliver had multiple growths or nodules in his brain and throughout his digestive system, and that he had a fast growing cancer. It was confirmed that he did not have Avian Bornavirus so there was no risk to the other bird in home.
Having a definitive diagnosis brought a measure of relief and closure by knowing that there was nothing I could have done to save him or prevent his illness, and that my other bird is safe. It is always good to discuss what to do with your avian Vet if you want a necropsy done. Have the tests that need to be done and be clear if you want to be notified of any additional testing that may be required; be aware that extra testing means additional cost. Extra testing goes deeper into diagnosis and can provide more details to the findings. The necropsy can help you get answers and can also help the treating vet learn.
Euthanasia can be done on a terminally ill bird and you can still have a necropsy, but notify the vet in advance that a necropsy is requested because it can affect the outcome of the necropsy.
In an avian medicine article on preparing the body for necropsy, it states that unless steps are taken to minimize decomposition, the validity of the necropsy and tests on the tissues and organs can be affected. The warmer the environment the faster the decomposition, especially if the bird was in an incubator or in a heated environment (heating lamp, heating pad, etc.). Keep in mind that timing is everything. The faster everything is done, the better and more accurate the results. Based on this article, the bird can be cooled down by soaking in cool soapy water and placing it in a thin plastic bag and placing in a refrigerator.
What I was advised was a little different and this is why I recommend a discussion with your vet prior to a death. This is not a comfortable topic and no one really wants to think about it but unforeseen circumstances happen. Type up the instructions and place them in the bottom of your avian first aid kit so you can find them if you need to. You can have your bird cremated after the necropsy, so be sure to discuss that with your avian vet as well.