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Undertaking farm animal post mortem exams

25 May 2016 | Sheep | Public health | Pigs | Laboratory | Disease | Cattle


Farm animals and the farm environment, where many of us spend our working days, can expose us to a wide range of differing risks. BVA’s Voice survey revealed that over half of farm vets suffered injuries at work within a 12-month period.

Vet walking through farFarm animals and the farm environment, where many of us spend our working days, can expose us to a wide range of differing risks. BVA’s Voice survey revealed that over half of farm vets suffered injuries at work within a 12-month period. But it is not just about occupational injuries; we are also at risk from occupational zoonoses such as cryptosporidiosis or orf.

Similar risks can also be identified once the animal has died and a follow up post mortem examination (PME) is requested or suggested. This could be undertaken on the farm, a local knacker’s yard or hunt kennel, or even on the practice premises with smaller carcases.

A sloppy working routine when sampling at a PME can readily contaminate containers and/or accompanying paperwork, thereby potentially exposing lay staff packing such material to some of these zoonotic risks. Those accompanying us on these farm visits such as veterinary undergraduates on EMS, schoolchildren and farm staff enlisted to help should also be protected from the risks.

Challenges of post mortem exams

I worked for 30 years as a veterinary investigation officer for Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) and have first-hand experience of the problems and difficulties faced by veterinary surgeons in practice undertaking their own PMEs – many of which can be easily overcome.

How often have you sent in samples from your own PME, only to receive a report from the laboratory telling you your tissue was poorly fixed, that you sent in an insufficient sample to test or your swabs or tissues were heavily overgrown with contaminants? You then have to explain (often hiding your embarrassment) the resultant bill to your client – who may end up frustrated and no wiser.

If you are able to undertake this work to a high standard yourself, it is another component part of the health and welfare package you provide for your client. Get it right and improve your client confidence.

Approaching post mortem exams with confidence

Whilst appreciating that it is much easier to carry out a PME in a dedicated post mortem room, there are some simple ways you can successfully conduct a PME in a thoughtful and logical manner. It’s important to carry out risk management at every location you undertake a PME and come prepared with the correct personal protective equipment (PPE) and a planned approach aimed at minimising the risks of cross contamination.

You should consider how to approach the PME – think about the equipment and techniques you’ll use. It is also important to have a good understanding of the history before you begin.

Lots of the daily skills you use as a clinician can be applied to your approach to PMEs. Once you have transferred these skills, you will be carrying out PMEs with confidence.

The rise of private post mortem exams

I was a member of the Independent Surveillance Advisory Panel, charged with the task of developing a strategy to offset the imminent government laboratory rationalisation and resultant closures of APHA regional laboratories, which has since been implemented by the ‘Surveillance 2014’ group. This group highlighted the role the private vet should take in carrying out more PMEs, as dedicated laboratory pathology sites became less available.

Based on an annual ‘show of hands’ at the British Cattle Veterinary Association’s (BCVA) ‘Diagnostics’ training day I run, private vets are undertaking more PMEs. Young graduates in particular seem to be getting more involved, and some of them are very enthusiastic, seeing this as a niche for them in their early years.

Post mortem examination can be both interesting and rewarding - I promise!

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David HarwoodWritten by David Harwood


David is a visiting Reader in Veterinary Field Pathology at the Surrey School of Veterinary Science, and since retiring has been teaching field post mortem techniques in this role, and also on the BCVA Foundation Diagnostics course. His autobiography 'Rural Tranquillity to National Crisis: A Farm Vets Story' was published in 2015.


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