A total of 253 submissions from adult cattle ‘found dead’ in England and Wales were referred to the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in 2004. Carcases accounted for 54 per cent of the submissions and were of more diagnostic value than other types of sample. Whether the animals were beef or dairy, their distance from the laboratory and the number of deaths in the incident affected the likelihood of samples being submitted. The probability of reaching a diagnosis was influenced by the type of sample, the level of testing and the interval from sampling to receipt in the laboratory. Systemic disease was the most frequent cause of death in both dairy and beef cattle with hypomagnesaemia being the most frequent diagnosis (52 per cent) in beef cattle. In dairy cattle, 34 per cent of the diagnoses were for sporadic events, including haemorrhage and torsions of the digestive and reproductive tracts.