The "digital" necropsyFeedlot Health Management Systems, Okotoks, Alberta, has been known to be cutting edge with its technology, software and records management/analysis and animal health programs.
Added to this impressive array of services, FHMS also trains its own non-veterinarian personnel as well as some feedlot employees to perform standard necropsies, digitally photograph them according to a prescribed set of instructions, and load them onto a web-based application for evaluation and diagnosis by trained FHMS veterinarians the same day they are received.

Even though FHMS has over a dozen veterinarians, its clients are spread throughout Canada and the U.S. and it’s not always possible for the veterinarians to physically be on the operations themselves. The digital necropsy system, which the practice has been doing since about 1995, is now utilized at all of the FHMS client feedlots, enabling them to perform necropsy procedures on their own and send in a set of digital photo images from prescribed angles. These digital images allow FHMS veterinarians to diagnose situations daily, which might not otherwise be possible for remote clients.

FHMS’ Tye Perrett, DVM, says, “This real-time system is utilized for monitoring animal health outcomes within the feedlot population so that interventions can be applied as required at critical times in the feeding period.”

To gather as many data points as possible for feedlot monitoring systems, every animal that dies is necropsied. Perrett says depending on the time of year, it is important to perform the necropsy/prosection as soon as possible in order to prevent the carcass from becoming too autolysed or frozen. “In general if the necropsy/prosection is performed the same day that the animal was identified as dead, then we can make an accurate diagnosis,” Perrett says.

“In addition, in our system it is important to perform the necropsy/prosection as soon as possible so that the veterinarians can provide a diagnosis to the feedlot the same day. This diagnosis is an essential element of the FHMS services with respect to animal health monitoring and management. Same-day diagnosis assists in identifying opportunities for animal health interventions while there is still time to have a positive or mitigating effect on the population.”

Necropsy/prosection for the practice’s “local clients” (within a one hour drive of
the Okotoks office) are performed by trained FHMS field support staff. “For
our ‘distant clients’ we will train feedlot staff to perform the necropsy/prosection,” Perrett explains.

Both the FHMS support staff and feedlot staff are trained in much the same way. “All of our veterinarians may be involved in training,” Perrett says. “The training is standardized by utilizing the FHMS Necropsy Manual, which FHMS has developed over the years. This manual clearly outlines the pictures that need to be taken, the method of prosection that is required as well as the positioning of the carcass and organs for optimal picture quality. “This manual is provided to each individual that is involved in
necropsy/prosection and serves as reference material,” Perrett says. “FHMS veterinarians and/or experienced FHMS field support staff spend time with each individual in one-on-one training. This training is ongoing as necessary.”

In the mid 1990’s when this concept of digital necropsy originated, FHMS utilized its standard approach and evaluated it in a scientific manner, which was later published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal (CVJ 2000;41:124–125). “This scientific approach to validate the accuracy of the digital necropsy technique necessitated a standardized system,” notes Perrett. “Over the years as technology and our understanding of feedlot pathology improved, this system was also improved. Now, the accuracy of these digital necropsies are evaluated on an ongoing basis as we continue to refine the process.”

Standardization is critical
Standardization is essential in the FHMS system. Ongoing training, the FHMS Necropsy Manual as well as algorithms for diagnosis by the veterinarians are integral components of the standardization methodology. “In addition, there are mechanisms for constant and consistent feedback from veterinarians as they review the pictures to make the diagnosis,” Perrett says. “Obviously appropriate pictures and picture quality are essential for a veterinarian to make an accurate diagnosis.”

The "digital" necropsyThis system provides opportunities for self-learning by feedlot staff as they get “real time” feedback on the cause of death for the animals that they have observed and/or treated. “In addition, this system allows for ongoing training moments — teachable moments — for the veterinarian with feedlot staff.” 

Generally samples are not part of the standard necropsy procedure.  As part of the digital necropsy training, prosectors are trained to notify an FHMS veterinarian if they have any concerns or questions about a specific post mortem. “This gives the veterinarian the opportunity to arrange for sample collection as necessary,” Perrett says. “Sample collection may be pre-arranged for post mortems that may occur in specific pens that are being monitored for disease outbreak situations, and sample collection may be pre-arranged for specific cases as part of research projects.”

FHMS has developed a web-based system for the clients to upload the pictures and treatment history and then the veterinarians can access, review and make a diagnosis. The web-based system automatically emails the post mortem report to the client at the time that the veterinarian makes the final diagnosis. “The diagnosis is then entered into our software (iFHMS), recorded at the individual animal level and assimilated into the various reports which the feedlot and the FHMS veterinarian utilize for monitoring and managing animal health in the feedlot,” Perrett says.

Perrett says this system has proven very successful as clients receive the immediate and standardized feedback on the post mortems at their site. “Feedlot managers and animal health supervisors come to rely on this information to manage the feedlot and thus they become part of the team, along with FHMS to ensure that the data is collected properly,” he explains. This “buy-in” and team approach maximizes the value
of this digital necropsy process for
the feedlot.

FHMS has many examples where the digital necropsy method has provided the necessary information required to determine if a pen is undergoing a BRD or Histophilus outbreak, for instance. “When our systems identify these pens we communicate with the feedlot regarding implementation of the correct control strategies,” Perrett notes. “In addition, the digital necropsy method provides insight and characterizes the gross pathological lesions associated with rare or previously unrecognized syndromes in feedlot cattle. For example, it has provided interesting insight into the gross pathology and epidemiology of toe tip necrosis as well as a syndrome we call ‘bowel edema’ in feedlot cattle.”

The most important thing is to clearly identify the gross pathology that characterizes the main syndromes that you are trying to manage and then build a standardized system to ensure that the picture quality is sufficient to provide a high degree of accuracy, Perrett says. “Also, work at continually improving the system and utilize the constantly evolving technology to assist with this improvement.”

Enhancing relationships
It might seem that this distant necropsy removes the veterinarian from the feedlot, but Perrett says it’s just the opposite. “In our view it is important that digital necropsies augment and enhance the vet/client relationship. The necropsy diagnosis in and of itself has limited meaning and value to the client. However, its value is dramatically increased when incorporated into a comprehensive animal health and production service. In this way a single data point is integrated into a complete data collection system that can turn data into information which can then translate into actions.”

Perrett adds that the necropsy data is used to identify opportunities to refine risk assessment and assignment of newly arrived cattle. “For example, an analysis of the causes of death within a certain purchase group or type of cattle may suggest that similar cattle placed in the future may benefit from a different risk assignment (higher or lower) and the accompanying prevention, control and treatment protocols,” he explains. “Finally, this necropsy data is analyzed to look for trends or correlations within the data which then lead to hypothesis testing in large pen commercial field trials to see if the outcomes can be improved upon in a cost-effective manner.”