A Chicken Necropsy Can Help With Mystery Death

Sometimes a chicken (or more than one) will die of mysterious circumstances, but a poultry necropsy—post-mortem examination—can often provide details.

by Ana Hotaling
PHOTO: anaterate/Pixabay

A text from my friend Dave captured my attention several mornings ago. His neighbor had rehomed her aggressive rooster, and now two of the rooster’s companions, one-year-old hens, had died inexplicably.

The girls had seemed apparently fine. They free-ranged and foraged like normal during the day, but soon afterward, they died.

Their owner was devastated. One of the hens even died in her arms. David contacted me to ask about the possibility of death by a broken heart due to separation from their boy.

My reply involved a lot of questions to determine and narrow down possibilities.

  • Could the girls have foraged and eaten something poisonous?
  • Did their owner’s property slope down from her immediate neighbors. And, if so, did those neighbors use herbicides or pesticides that might have washed down to her yard with all the recent rain?
  • Was their feed stored properly so that it couldn’t be contaminated by rodent feces?
  • Could they have possibly accessed something toxic in the garage?

So many possible causes of death existed, from environmental to accidental, that it would be nearly impossible to pinpoint what happened to her hens. For me, that is. However, for this chicken owner and for all poultry keepers who have ever been left mystified as to the cause of death of one (or more) of their birds, a poultry necropsy may be the solution.

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What is a Necropsy?

A chicken necropsy is a post-mortem (after death) examination of an animal to determine the cause of illness and/or death. Necropsies are especially useful in detecting potential outbreaks of illnesses amongst both livestock and companion animals.

Necropsies are usually conducted at veterinary diagnostic laboratories (VDL), which are typically associated with land-grant universities and located on their campuses.

How Do I Arrange for a Necropsy?

Check the internet or contact your local extension office to locate your state’s VDL. Most likely, the VDL will have a web site listing instructions for a necropsy request as well as the cost of the procedure and the lab’s hours of operation.

If your state’s VDL does not have a web site, contact them via telephone or email and request this information over the telephone.

You do not need to live near the VDL in order to have a necropsy performed. Many accept requests from outside their area and will provide detailed instructions on how to ship your bird to them.

How Do I Prepare My Bird’s Body for a Necropsy?

Every VDL will have its own guidelines regarding how they want the carcass handled.

You will more than likely be asked to refrigerate the bird to preserve its body from decomposition. More specifically, you may be instructed not to freeze the remains, as this can compromise cellular structure.

The fresher the carcass, the more likely an accurate diagnosis will be reached. Do not treat the body in any way as this may disrupt the findings. Even if your bird’s body is bloody, muddy or otherwise soiled, leave everything as is.

Simply place the body in a sealed, leakproof bag (double-bag it for safety) and keep it refrigerated until you have specific instructions from your VDL.

These environmental enrichments will help your chickens beat boredom.

How Long Will Results Take?

Determinations vary depending on the condition of the carcass and the VDL performing the chicken necropsy.

Results of a general (gross) necropsy can take between one to five days. Specialized examination—which may include toxicology, nutrition and other ancillary tests—will take longer.

Your VDL will inform you as to when you can expect the results as well as specifics regarding delivery of  results: emailed, mailed, faxed or posted securely online.

What Else Should I Know?

A body submitted for necropsy will not return to its owner. Typically, a VDL cremates all of its necropsy subjects.

Many labs offer on-site cremation services, so make certain you request specifics about cremation services and ask about ash disposal. Some VDLs, like that at Michigan State University, will mail your bird’s ashes back to you for an additional cost.

However, if a contagious illness such as avian influenza (AI) or infectious bronchitis (IBR) caused your bird’s death, your state’s veterinary pathologist will receive these results. A representative will reach out to you regarding the best course of action for your flock.

I never heard back about what David’s neighbor decided to do about her hens. Given that she loved her birds dearly—all her birds have individual names, just like ours do—my guess is that she laid her hens to rest in her backyard.

However, at least she now knows that necropsy is an option should a mystery death ever occur again in her flock.

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