Difference between Autopsy and Necropsy

Updated on December 12, 2017

While both a necropsy and an autopsy refer to the operations performed in order to investigate the cause of death, there are differences between the two procedures. We will examine these in this article.


A brain autopsy demonstrating signs of meningitis, with presence of streptococcus pneumoniae

An autopsy is a standard examination of the body of an individual, after he has died. This operation, also known by its Latin term post-mortem examination, can be performed for a variety of reasons and with different goals.

The most common cases that lead to an autopsy include sudden or mysterious death, when there was no apparent reason for a person to die. An autopsy is a common procedure during criminal investigations.

A special term – a forensic expertise is assigned to such an autopsy.

Autopsies are generally divided into the following types:

  1. Forensic autopsy. This aims to find the actual cause of death, and is required according to the law in case of violent death, sudden death or when there is no medical history of a person involved.
  2. Pathological autopsy (also known as clinical autopsy). This is performed in order to more precisely diagnose a disease, as well as for medical research purposes.
  3. Academic autopsy. This is performed solely in medical schools for educational purposes.
  4. Medical imaging autopsies. These involve using the techniques of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and tomography.
pigmy whale necropsy
A pigmy whale necropsy procedure performed by a team of professional veterinarians

Necropsy is a procedure that is usually performed on animals in order to establish the actual cause of their death.

Stages of a necropsy procedure:

  1. The external examination of the body with focus on injuries or traumas. Samples of blood or other body fluids are taken during this stage.
  2. Internal necropsy. The specialist would open the body up and examine the internal organs of an animal. In case he suspects that something is not clear with the organs, he may redirect them to the biopsy procedure, which is usually performed in a separate laboratory and takes a different sort of experts, depending on the species examined.

Autopsy vs Necropsy

What is the difference between autopsy and necropsy?

The main difference between the two terms is that an autopsy is performed on humans, while a necropsy usually refers to a post mortem procedure performed on animals.

An autopsy is a much more difficult and complex procedure between the two, with many more stages; it requires all the elements investigated thoroughly and precisely. In a criminal case, the result of the expertise used in an autopsy affects the whole investigation and may lead to the case being solved right after the results of the procedure.

An expert in autopsy is required to have a much more sophisticated training; they are usually well-educated and experienced specialists in a medical field. Necropsy would only be performed by a qualified veterinarian.

Comparison chart

Autopsy Necropsy
Is performed on human bodies, used in human medicineIs performed on animals’ bodies, used in veterinary medicine
Is usually more thoroughIs usually less thorough
Is often performed to help criminal investigationIs not usually connected to  legal matters
Is usually not connected to preventing diseasesIs often performed in order to determine newly emerged disease affecting the species
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