Too many times the following statement is made when a production animal dies or aborts: “well that’s just one of those things and you can’t lose them if you don’t have them”.  You can’t lose them if you don’t have them is a true statement, but considering abortion or death as “just one of those things” is loaded with potential economic loss.  The better way is to ask the questions; 1) what happened, 2) what caused it to happen, 3) will it happen again and 4) how can it be prevented from happening again? Most often the answers to these questions are found in the aborted fetus (premature animal) and dam or the dead animal and their environment - where they live, what they eat, what they drink, to what they are exposed - toxins, infectious agents, stress, weather extremes, etc.

Many are familiar with the Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) television programs – CSI Las Vegas, CSI New York, CSI Miami and NCIS.  It is very apparent in these programs that no one is to move the body or interfere with the scene until the pathologist (physician that has special training in pathology) arrives and examines the environment and performs a preliminary examination of the body.  Following the on-site examination the body is moved to the morgue where a postmortem examination and necessary laboratory test are performed to arrive at the cause of death.  There are at least two reasons we do not want to move the animal: 1) containment of a potential highly contagious disease such as Anthrax and 2) there is often very valuable information in the area where the animal dies.  An example is lead poisoning.  Lead causes brain swelling resulting in convulsions and death.  Therefore, if the area around the animal appeared the animal had been convulsing, lead and other neurologic diseases would be considered as possible causes of death.

Definition: postmortem examination / autopsy / necropsy – examination of a body after death to determine the actual cause of death

Your veterinarian is also trained in pathology.  It is one of their most valuable diagnostic tools.  As owners or caretakers, you provide the veterinarian with an accurate history as well as any environmental factors that are not readily apparent.  The sooner after death a postmortem exam is performed, especially in hot weather, better are the chances of finding the cause of death.   Many times the cause of death can be diagnosed with the information provided by the owner/caretaker; environmental factors identified on-site and postmortem findings.   However, there are times in which tissue, body fluids, stomach and intestine content, feed, water and suspected toxic material samples must be sent to a diagnostic laboratory for testing to gain additional information necessary for a diagnosis.  Also important is that the remainder of at-risk animals in the herd or flock are inspected in the environment, pasture or pen, where they are normally kept.

Diagnosing the cause of abortions can be somewhat frustrating.  However, to insure the best chance of identifying causation, the following are extremely necessary.  First is the fresh fetus that is kept cool, not frozen, and presented to the veterinarian or diagnostic laboratory as soon as possible for a complete post mortem exam and sample collection for laboratory testing.  Second is the placenta in total or at least some of the placental attachment locations, which also must be kept cool.  Third is the first of two blood samples must be collected from the dam, the second sample should be collected two weeks after the first.

The most common argument for not establishing a diagnosis when the first animal dies or the first fetus is aborted is; why incur the cost when this may be the only one that dies or aborts?  If either is the first and only death or abortion you eliminate that cost, but you may have denied yourself of information that could have proved valuable in the future.  More importantly, many times the abortions and death losses don’t stop at one.

The second most common argument (often first place) for not establishing a diagnosis is: “why spend all that money on a dead animal”.  The cost of a postmortem examination can range from $50.00 to $150.00 depending on animal size and complexity of the case.  This does not include mileage or laboratory fees.  The question, “why spend all that money on a dead animal” is a valid question if the information gained goes unused.  However, if used correctly, the information on death causation is valuable information for the remaining at-risk animals in the herd or flock.  The information gained should stimulate one or more of the following actions; initiate a vaccination program, initiate a treatment protocol, search out the source of and eliminate a toxin, evaluate feedstuffs and rations, add disease preventative products to water, feed or mineral, etc.  Also the cost of the information gained must be parceled out or assessed to those remaining at-risk animals.

Example:  Herd of 50 head
1st dead animal                                                        =$1000.00 or $20.41 / at-risk animal
Veterinary costs (post mortem + mileage                = $200.00 or $4.08 / at-risk anima
Veterinary costs + 1 dead animal                            = $1200.00 or $24.48 / at-risk animal

2nd dead animal                                                      =$1000.00 or $20.83 / at-risk animal
Total Veterinary costs                                            =$400.00 or $8.33 / at-risk animal
Total Veterinary costs + two dead animals            =$2400.00 or $50.00 / at-risk animal 

These same calculations can be used when dealing with abortions (use $600 as the value of a weaned calf).  The at-risk group is often thought to be the fetus only.  However, many times infectious agents, as well as toxins, put the dam at-risk as well as the fetus.

In summary, never waste a dead animal.  They have the potential of being a source of very valuable information.  It could be argued that this is not a valid statement if the dead animal was the only one in the herd/flock.  However, if the cause of death was not determined, the next cow purchased may be at risk.  Especially if she finds the same broken car battery and eats the remaining lead containing plates that caused death by lead intoxication in the first cow. 

Source: John G. Kirkpatrick, DVM, DABVP, Emeritus Associate Professor, Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine