Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet
Veterinary Preventive Medicine
1900 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210
Poultry Necropsy Basics
Meredith F. Davis, D.V.M.
College of Veterinary Medicine
Teresa Y. Morishita, D.V.M., Ph.D.
Extension Veterinarian, Poultry
Ohio State University Extension
Why Would You Perform a Necropsy?
The necropsy (post-mortem dissection) of poultry is a
procedure that can be utilized by the veterinarian, the manager, or
the grower to find reasons for the bird's death. Using a knife
or scissors, a person can perform a basic necropsy to obtain
diagnostic information, samples for further laboratory testing, or
to ensure quality control of a flock. If you see a rise in
mortality (death rates) or a rise in morbidity (number of ill birds),
the necropsy can provide you with more information about
the disease, perhaps even a diagnosis. Your veterinarian and
diagnostic lab can supply you with additional information on
sampling techniques and shipping methods for diagnostic testing.
While walking through a house, a recently dead or
currently ill bird can be chosen for a necropsy. Birds that have been
dead for more than a few hours are not recommended for
diagnostic specimens since the natural decomposition process will
create changes that may be confused with true pathological lesions.
If a specimen cannot be necropsied immediately, it should
be refrigerated until a later time. If you choose to euthanize
and necropsy a sick bird, first observe it for abnormal
breathing patterns, abnormal posture, ruffling of feathers, and/or nasal
or ocular discharge before euthanizing.
The bird can be humanely euthanized by several
approved methods including cervical dislocation (breaking the
neck), using a carbon dioxide chamber, or injecting a euthanasia
solution such as potassium chloride or high dose barbiturates into
a vein or directly into the heart.
Basic Necropsy Needs
- A flat hard surface in a well-lighted area.
- Access to water and towels.
- Knife or scissors.
Consider gloves and a face mask if you suspect a
potentially zoonotic disease (transmissible to humans) as the cause of
illness or death.
Performing a Necropsy
- Wet down the feathers with a disinfectant solution to limit the
distribution of feathers during the dissection.
- Place the bird on its back with its feet towards you.
- Grasp both legs and push down and away from the pelvis to loosen the joints.
- Tent the skin over the abdomen and cut with scissors or knife.
||Figure A. The skin overlying the breast and abdomen is removed.
The arrowhead is pointing to an abnormally crooked keel.
- Remove the skin overlying the abdomen and breast (from neck to cloaca).
- Examine the breast muscle for decreased muscle mass, paleness (anemia), or bruising.
- Incise the abdominal muscle and cut through the ribs on the sides of the keel bone.
- Grasp the keel near the abdomen and pull upwards to expose the internal organs and chest cavity.
- Examine the liver for changes in size or discoloration, white or yellow spots, abscesses, and/or tumors.
||Fig. B. The keel is lifted and the
liver is visualized. The normal liver should not extend
beyond the tip of the keel.
- Examine the air sacs for increased thickness and increased
cloudiness. The normal air sac surfaces look like soap bubbles or
clear cellophane wrap.
- Cut the gastrointestinal (GI) tract between the esophagus and proventriculus.
- Remove the proventriculus, ventriculus (gizzard), small
intestines, large intestine, ceca, and cut off at the level of the
cloaca. The pancreas will also be removed. It is the pinkish tan
organ cradled within the loop of duodenum (a section of the small
- Cut all attachments close to the intestines and set the GI tract
aside. At the end of the necropsy, these organs can be opened up and
examined for internal parasites.
- Next, remove the liver and spleen. A green discoloration of the
liver near the gall bladder is a normal finding. The spleen is the
reddish, round organ located at the junction of the proventriculus
- Now you can observe the organs located near the backbone of the carcass.
- Examine the kidneys, which are elongated, lobulated organs that
are embedded in the backbone of the bird, and the left ovary/oviduct
(or paired testes), which are positioned on top of the kidneys.
- The lungs, which are attached to the ribs, can be gently teased
out of the ribcage for further examination.
- The outer surface of the heart should be examined for a cloudy,
thickened appearance, suggesting pericarditis. Also, note if
excessive fluid is located between the heart and the pericardium
(membranous covering of the heart).
- Next, turn the bird around to face you and cut through the corner of the beak.
- Extend the cut through the throat and down towards the heart.
- Examine the interior surface of the esophagus and crop. Look for
the presence of food and/or parasites (worms) in the crop. If the
inside surface appears to resemble a towel, it may be an indication
of a fungal infection called "crop mycosis."
- Next, cut through the larynx, trachea, and syrinx. The inside
surface should be free of excess mucus.
- Turn the bird back to the previous positioning feet in front of you.
- The sciatic nerve located on the interior upper thigh (located
under muscle) should be exposed on both legs. The nerves should be
the same size bilaterally with no swellings. Enlargement of this
nerve can be an indication of Marek's disease.
- With a sharp knife, cut through the stifle and hock joints,
looking for yellow or white pus-like material, blood, or excess
fluid. Joints should appear shiny and white with just a small amount
of clear, sticky fluid inside.
- To find the bursa of Fabricius, cut through the cloaca and look
for a grape-like structure towards the rear of the bird. The older
the birdthe smaller the bursa. The bursa diminishes in size as the
bird reaches sexual maturity.
- Cut the bursa in half. It should have wrinkles running parallel
to each other on the surface and be cream colored in appearance.
Note any discoloration or swelling.
- Now return to the GI tract and starting with the proventriculus,
cut lengthwise. The inside wall is bumpy and this is normal as these
are digestive glands.
||Figure C. The GI tract has been
excised and positioned for further examination of the
A = spleen.
B = proventriculus.
C = ventriculus.
D = duodenum.
E = pancreas.
F = jejunum.
- Cut through the ventriculus, intestines, and ceca. Note the
appearance of the inside walls (mucosa) and the presence of
parasites (worms), blood, and/or a thickened or discolored surfaces.
- Dispose of the carcass properly and disinfect surfaces and tools.
Contact your veterinarian for information on any other
body parts (e.g., the brain or sinuses) you would like to examine or for
information on sampling of organs for additional bacterial
and viral testing.
The authors would like to thank Dr. Kent Hoblet, Dr.
Gary Bowman, and Dr. Mo Saif for reviewing this information.
Special thanks to Heather Caprette for the photography
and graphic editing, and to Eric Alvarado for assistance with
design, layout, and technical support.
Click here to view the PDF of this Fact Sheet.
All educational programs conducted by Ohio State University
Extension are available to clientele on a nondiscriminatory basis without
regard to race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, national origin,
gender, age, disability or Vietnam-era veteran status.
Keith L. Smith, Associate Vice President for Ag. Adm. and
Director, OSU Extension.
TDD No. 800-589-8292 (Ohio only) or 614-292-1868
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