As livestock keepers, checking your animals on a daily basis is part of the routine husbandry regime. Despite the evenings drawing in, taking a walk around the fields on a frosty morning is a real pleasure –until you spot four hooves pointing skywards.
Life and death is an integral part of the livestock farming cycle, but when you come across an animal that has died unexpectedly, feelings can range from disappointment to devastation. In some instances, the cause of death may be obvious and difficult to prevent, as with lightning strikes, for example. In many cases, however, the cause of death may not be clear. Livestock keepers are then faced with a decision. Knowing that there will be the inevitable costs associated with removal and disposal of the carcase, is it worth paying the additional cost of having a post mortem examination performed, to try to identify the actual cause of death?
Despite recent changes within the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), formerly the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA), subsidised post mortem examinations (PMEs) are still available to farmers in many parts of the UK. Defra recognise the importance of collecting and monitoring PME findings as part of their surveillance programme for new and emerging livestock diseases and are working closely with a number of organisations to deliver a cost effective post mortem surveillance programme for all farmed livestock species. In conjunction with the University of Surrey, Westpoint Farm Vets have trained a number of experienced farm animal veterinary surgeons in the skills required to conduct a thorough PME and are performing these examinations at a number of fallen stock sites across the country. The subsidised service means that, for a single fee, the cost of the PME and all reasonable laboratory testing to reach a diagnosis will be covered.
For most livestock keepers, the primary reason for requesting a PME is to find out why the animal died, in order to prevent further deaths from the same cause in the remainder of the flock. In addition to answering the question ‘Why did it die?’ a full PME can also help build a picture of ‘What other conditions did the animal have?’ The answers to this may help address issues of sub-optimal performance in the flock. Feeding the information from individual PMEs into Defra’s surveillance programme also helps to build up a picture of the disease status of the national flock, and provides valuable information on emerging diseases, as was the case for Bluetongue and Schmallenberg.
Many livestock keepers have concerns that the price they pay for a PME will be ‘wasted money’ if a diagnosis is not reached. This can be mitigated by ensuring that the carcase submitted for PME is as fresh as possible and that a full history of the case, and any other relevant information, is given to your veterinary surgeon. The vet performing the examination will then be in a better position to collect good quality samples and request appropriate laboratory tests. The facilities available to Westpoint vets for performing PMEs at the fallen stock sites mean that examinations can be conducted in a clean, safe environment, which again means that the likelihood of getting a diagnosis is improved. Although a diagnosis can never be guaranteed, there is always a value in knowing that certain diseases have also been ruled out.
Luckily for me on this occasion, the four feet pointing skywards belonged to an animal that had become cast, which subsequently wandered off indignant and unappreciative after having been righted. However, the incident did make me consider what action we would have taken had the outcome been different. Although in a high proportion of cases, an unexpected death is not associated with a sinister underlying problem, there are also many instances where warning signs have been ignored with devastating consequences. There is undoubtedly a cost associated with having a PME undertaken, but in the grand scheme of things, the benefits in terms of understanding the health status and disease profile of your flock are likely to outweigh the cost. Post mortem examination criteria can easily be built into your Farm Health Plan – just contact your local vet for further information.
Dr Lindsay Heasman