Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Ask a Vet: Helpful tips to perform a calf necropsy

Megan Tiffany for Progressive Dairy Published on 25 November 2020

Necropsies can be an extremely valuable tool in diagnosing herd health problems. Before you begin, review the calf’s history:

  1. How old was the animal?

  2. What vaccines and treatments did it receive?

  3. How long was it sick?

  4. What were the clinical signs before it died?

  5. Herd demographics:
  • How many animals are affected? (morbidity and mortality rates)

  • Nutrition

  • Housing

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” Take pictures before you start taking samples or moving organs around, with special focus on anything that looks abnormal.  end mark



Calf necropsy checklist

Equipment needed

  • Gloves
  • Jack knife, kitchen knife or scalpel
  • Jar with formalin – (10-to-1 ratio of formalin to tissue)
  • 3 to 4 bags (Ziploc or Whirl-Pak)
  • Hedge trimmers (to cut ribs on older animals)


  • When cutting samples, if you can see tissue that looks normal next to tissue that looks abnormal, try to get a sample where normal and abnormal tissue meet.

  • Get fresh and formalin-preserved samples of each tissue listed below.

  • Gather samples of the gut tissues last to minimize contamination.

Samples needed

Non-gut tissues – can share the same bag

  • Muscle
  • Skin – ear notch works well for this
  • Lung – does the sample float in water or formalin?
  • Heart – take a cross-section including a section of a heart valve
  • Liver
  • Gallbladder
  • Spleen
  • Kidneys – cut kidneys lengthwise and then take a cross-cut sample
  • Bladder

Gut tissues – can share the same bag


  • Rumen
  • Reticulum
  • Omasum
  • Abomasum
  • Small intestine (multiple sites and include lymph nodes)
  • Large intestine

Manure sample – place in bag

Blood sample – store in a red top tube

  • Tip: Cut up the armpit of the front leg and get a blood sample from the vein.

Submit samples for diagnosis

  • Refrigerate samples; do not freeze.
  • Label with animal ID, farm name and date of sample collection.
  • Place all sample bags in another bag in case of leakage.
  • Submit to the diagnostic lab within 24 hours.


Please discuses with your herd veterinarian or consulting veterinarian for detailed recommendations for submitting guidelines to specific labs.