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What Is a Necropsy?

Learn what a necropsy is in this Howcast video featuring bunny lover Amy Sedaris and rabbit expert Mary E. Cotter.


So one of the hardest times a rabbit owner has to face is when the rabbit dies, especially when the rabbit dies of unknown causes. We encourage all owners to have what's called a necropsy, which is another word for an autopsy. And what that means is that the rabbit's body and his tissues are examined after death. A lot of owners find this a repulsive idea and they say things to me like, "Oh, I don't want my rabbit desecrated, I can't imagine cutting him up", they have images of necropsy that are just not the way it really is. So we wanted to talk a little bit about necropsies and why they're so valuable.

A necropsy, and this is obviously a very much alive rabbit, he's just here to help, keep visual interest while we're talking about something like death. A necropsy is very simple surgery that's done after death. And the rabbit is opened up after death just as neatly as he's opened up, for example, when you female rabbit is spayed, he's not opened up when he's neutered, but when he has any other kind of surgery. It's a very neat procedure and same thing is done after death. The rabbit's body is carefully opened, tissue samples may be removed, for example if the veterinarian opens up your rabbit's body and discovers that the kidneys look really abnormal or the liver is all mottled in color and doesn't look right, any internal organs that have a strange or unusual appearance, maybe the lungs have consolidated material in them. The veterinarian is going to want to take small tissue samples from these organs and send them to a pathology laboratory for examination to get some answers as to why this rabbit died, or how this rabbit died. This is just unbelievably comforting to most rabbit owners because rabbit owners, like any really serious pet lovers, rabbit owners blame themselves. "Oh my God, if only I had done this, if only I had done that, this rabbit wouldn't have died" and most of the time it's not the rabbit owner's fault or responsibility that the rabbit died. The rabbit was going to die regardless of what the owner did.

And I remember a case a few years ago, I had a wonderful little foster rabbit that I had adopted out and I had his brother for awhile and finally adopted that bunny out and their owner was somewhere in Europe, out of range of any cell tower. And one day I came back to check the rabbit and he was lying dead in his cage. He had been perfect that morning and this was later in the afternoon and he was just dead. Of course I was beside myself with pain and anguish and blaming myself, beating myself up, sure that I had done something wrong forgotten to do something or done something that I shouldn't have done. I just couldn't imagine what because I was caring for the rabbit as best I could. I right away tried to call the owners to get permission to get necropsy and the owners, as I said, weren't near a cell tower so I wasn't able to reach them. But I always ask people to sign a boarding contract, part of which stipulates that I can seek and get vet care, so I took the rabbit's body along with that permission to our veterinarian and asked him to do a necropsy, which he did and I assisted him in the necropsy and we found that this rabbit had a grossly irregular heart. Left ventricular septal cardiomyopathy, I remember it to this day. And I looked at this heart and I said "Oh, my heavens, so this is why he died" and the vet said, "The question isn't why he died here, the question is how did he live two years with a heart like this? This is really remarkable that he survived that long." So that gave me a lot of comfort, I hadn't done anything wrong.

And then interestingly enough, shortly after that I received word that that rabbit's sibling had been adopted out to another area, had died thirty days before of exactly the same cause and we know that because that rabbit owner also had a necropsy done. So a necropsy can stop you from beating yourself up and can answer a lot of questions that bring you comfort. Even if you did something wrong that you might not have known you did wrong, a necropsy will help you identify what you could have done differently and will change what happens for your next rabbit. So it's really really valuable information. It also helps your veterinarian, veterinarians take care of our rabbits and they would love to know what's going on in ways that they can't see. And if a rabbit dies unexpectedly, and you permit your veterinarian, or even another veterinarian, to do a necropsy, you will get information and answers that you can't get in any other way.

A veterinarian might want to send out tissues for a lab test as I said and when results come back you can find out what was going on in various organs, so that's really, really useful. So all told, the time to think about necropsy is long long before the rabbit dies, like when a rabbit's really in good shape and healthy, start thinking about it now so that you're comfortable with the idea by the time your rabbit dies. And if you can collect that information it will help you, it will certainly help other rabbits. It's a really good procedure to have done.

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