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An Overview of Necropsy and the Risks Posed

Updated: Mar 30, 2023

For medications to reach the market, they must first go through a series of tests on animal subjects. Upon the death of the animal research subject, the specimen is necropsied to give researchers further insight into how experimentation impacted the animal’s life, as well as the overall safety and efficacy of the experiments that took place[1]. According to the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL), necropsy is defined as the “post-mortem examinations of production animals… companion animals… poultry, zoo/exotics, wildlife, and fish to determine the cause of illness or death”[2]. In other words, necropsies are usually the animal version of an autopsy, used to determine causes of diseases that impacted the animal during its life as well as what led to its ultimate demise. Like autopsies, per the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), necropsies are high-risk procedures[3]. Animals undergoing necropsies may have passed due to an unknown illness that are impacting a larger group of animals, such as cases of disease outbreaks among herd animals[4]. Therefore, the proper determination of the cause of disease or death in one animal may save the lives of other animals.


Necropsies also pose high risk to the examiners. The actual necropsy procedure includes sharp objects, bodily fluids, and aerosols[5]. Sharps may cause cuts or other soft-tissue injuries that can become infected, and the bodily fluids and aerosols present during the procedure may spread zoonoses[6]. A zoonosis, or zoonotic disease, is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “any disease or infection that is naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans”[7]. Examples of zoonotic diseases include Zoonotic influenzas—such as bird or swine flu, Salmonellosis, Plague, Rabies, West Nile virus, and Lyme disease[8]. The current COVID-19 pandemic virus is another example of a zoonotic disease[9]. Zoonotic diseases account for six out of ten infectious diseases found in people[10]. Therefore, controlling the transmission of zoonotic diseases from necropsy specimen to examiner is of utmost importance. Some zoonotic diseases, such as Salmonellosis and COVID-19, have been known to spread through the handling and consumption of infected animals and their meat. However, zoonotic diseases can also spread through water, environmental factors, and direct contact[11]. The AAHA recommends that personnel involved in or present during a necropsy wear personal protective equipment, such as protective outerwear, disposable gloves, protective eye gear or face shields, cut-proof gloves, and respiratory protection in the presence of power equipment[12].

Another method of risk prevention in a necropsy setting is ensuring that all necessary equipment has had proper preventive maintenance performed. If aerosols can infect examiners and bystanders, then proper ventilation is key. If sharps are involved, and the procedure requires close attention and skill, then ensuring the necropsy table and power equipment are fully functional and won’t break mid-procedure. Moreover, if the animal being necropsied is part of a herd or group of animals, and the cause of death is potentially infectious, then proper diagnosis post-mortem may help the surviving animals receive treatment and stop the spread of disease from animal to animal, as well as from animal to person. As with any lab space, necropsy settings pose a high risk, but these risks can be properly mitigated by following state and federal regulations, as well as by working in the most optimal environment available.


[1] Hampshire V, Rippy M. Optimizing research animal necropsy and histology practices. Lab Anim (NY). 2015;44(5):170-172. doi:10.1038/laban.765

[2] Necropsy. Veterinary Diagnostic Lab. Accessed August 29, 2022. Necropsy

[3] Performing a necropsy. www.aaha.org. performing a necropsy

[4] Necropsy. Veterinary Diagnostic Lab. Accessed August 29, 2022. Necropsy

[5] Performing a necropsy. www.aaha.org. Performing a necropsy

[6] Performing a necropsy. www.aaha.org. Performing a necropsy

[7] WHO. Zoonoses. World Health Organization. Published July 29, 2020. Zoonoses

[8] Zoonotic Diseases Shared Between Animals and People of Most Concern in the U.S. | CDC Online Newsroom | CDC. www.cdc.gov. Published May 6, 2019. 8 Zoonotic Diseases Shared Between Animals and People of Most Concern in the U.S.

[9] WHO. Zoonoses. World Health Organization. Published July 29, 2020. Zoonoses

[10] 8 Zoonotic Diseases Shared Between Animals and People of Most Concern in the U.S. | CDC Online Newsroom | CDC. www.cdc.gov. Published May 6, 2019. 8 Zoonotic Diseases Shared Between Animals and People of Most Concern in the U.S.

[11] WHO. Zoonoses. World Health Organization. Published July 29, 2020. Zoonoses

[12] Performing a necropsy. www.aaha.org. Performing a necropsy

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