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.