With Foaling time approaching we thought that an informative article about potential foaling problems may come in handy and be helpful.
One of the keys to identifying a problem in a newborn foal is to understand what a normal foal looks like. New foal sits sternal (on his chest/belly) with-held up within moments of birth. The foal will shake its head, lick its lips and will often start to vocalize when it sees and hears its mother. It is attached to the umbilical cord until the mother stands, at which point the cord breaks at an ideal distance from the body wall, with minimal bleeding. Most healthy foals will stand within 1 hour, nurse with in 2 hours, and show great affinity for its mother and a s strong urge to suckle.
The foal will initially display jerky, uncoordinated movement that improves with each passing hour. The consumption of antibody-rich colostrum is vital to closing and protecting the newborn gut, conferring normal immunity and providing the much needed nutrients and hydration (i.e.,energy) for continued activity.
Consumption of milk is verified by audible swallowing and the baby will nurse briefly several times per hour, with periods of sleep between feedings. Most foals will urinate within hours of foaling (average of 6 hours for fillies) and the onset of nursing will stimulate the first stool production, known as the passage of meconium, within an hour of birth. This initial manure is dark in color and turns a light tan once mare’s milk has been digested and meconium has completely passed (often within 12 to 24 hours). The foals legs may appear slightly lax or contracted initially, but this should improve over 24 to 48 hours. With each passing day, the foal will gain weight and look less ribby. A neonatal foal/mare exam is recommended at 10 to 12 hours of birth, as long as all the timelines above are met. Most immediate intervention is warranted if the foal fails to stand or nurse with in the first few hours, if it is not active or nursing frequently, or if it is considered to be at risk for complications from abnormalities in the pregnancy or during the deliver. At the 12 hour exam, your veterinarian will assess the mare to ensure that her vital signs and color are good and inspect her perineum to identify trauma or need for medical or surgical treatment.
The placenta will be inspected for its weight (not greater than 10% of foal body weight) and to ensure that it was passed completely. Normal expulsion occurs as the third stage of labor, and the placenta is considered retained 3 hours postpartum. Retention of the placenta for longer than 3 hours should be considered an emergency. The mare’s mammary development will also be noted.
The veterinarian will then turn his or her attention to the foal. Mares can be very protective of foals, and judicious use of halter and restraint by an experienced handler is recommended. Initial assessment of respiratory rate and heart rate can be done before any foal handling if the foal is resting. This minimizes the effect of excitement on the vitals. The foal will often stand once the rectal temperature is taken and will require gentle restraint for the rest of the exam. Again, proper restraint of the mare during the exam is crucial and a team of veterinarian, mare handler and foal handler is ideal to safely and accurately accomplish the post-foaling exam.
Reasons to Call the Veterinarian
Foals are very different from adult horses in their susceptibility to disease and in their resilience. The neonatal period is the riskiest time in the life of a horse. Hours can make the difference between life and death, so prompt action is crucial. Some foals may be normal at birth and then start to display behavior that requires veterinary intervention. This is why it is important to carefully observe any new foal in the first few weeks of life.
The normal gestation period of foals is 320 to 360 days. A foal is considered premature if its gestational age is less than 320 days. Note, however, that every mare has her own “normal” gestational length and that they tend to be fairly consistent from year to year. In other words, 320 days may be normal for one mare but very premature for another. Dysmaturity means immature development in spite of normal gestational age, so foals that are dysmature exhibit signs of prematurity after a normal gestation period Signs may include:
Small size, floppy ears, domed forehead, flaccid lips, silky hair-coat and sometimes slipper-like hooves. Lack of hair indicates a gestation period of less than 270 days except in cases of abnormal placentation, where the fetus was restricted by the uterus or in cases of twins.
Incomplete ossification (lack of bone development) of the small cuboidal bones of the carpi (front knee) and hocks, and tendon/ligament laxity.
Abnormal white blood cell parameters identified on a complete blood count.
Dysphagia or temporary loss of coordination of swallowing muscles. This manifests as milk dripping from nostrils or mouth and puts the foal at risk for aspiration pneumonia.
Premature/dysmature foals require advanced support and referral if they are unable to stand or nurse.
Decreased activity and nursing.
This is often the first sign of a problem. Spending increasing time laying down or asleep should raise concern. The mare’s udder will be more pendulous than normal or even drip milk. This can progress to lack of suckle reflex or attachment to the mare.
Fever. Any change in behavior warrants obtaining a rectal temperature. Any temperature over 102 degrees or under 99 degrees in depressed foal requires immediate communication with your veterinarian. However, only about 50% of foals with infections have fevers, so lack of a fever does not rule out infection.
Mild seizure activity in a foal can be as subtle as staring off into the distance with excessive blindking. Grand mal seizures often involve a loss of consciousness and larg-scal tremoring in lateral recumbency. Causes of seizures can vary from infection to brain hypoxemia (lasck of oxygen to the brain), from metabolic disturbances such as low calcium or glucose to genetic disorders. Immediate veterinary intervention is warranted.
Diarrhea or colic, in neonates is worrisome and immediate veterinary involvement is advised. Diarrhea puts the foal at risk for dehydration and can be caused by infectious agents, parasites, consumption of sand, overeating, lactose intolerance, or intestinal abnormalities. Supportive therapy and fluid administration is often required and failure to respond warrants referral. Mild diarrhea at one to two weeks of age in a foal with normal behavior and nursing activity, also known as foal heat diarrhea, is an exception to this rule, Note that foal heat diarrhea” has nothing to do with the mare’s first heat cycle but rather is due maturation of the gut. Normal foal manure is semi-formed and is not similar in appearance to adult horse manure.
Common causes of neonatal colic includes meconium impaction, viral or bacterial (infection type varies with age of foal), overfeeding, ruptured b ladder (abdominal pain), gastric ulceration, and parasitism.
Lameness or swollen joints require immediate examination. Never assume the mare stepped on the foal. Never assume the mare stepped on the foal. Neonatal lameness is often associated with sepsis and spread of infection to the joint or growth plate, often within the first 30 days of life. Common sources of infection include the gut, umbilicus lungs, and prognosis declines rapidly if not treated in the first 24 hours of symptoms. Referral to a NICU is recommended.
Labored respiration in foals is a cause for concern. Any issue that impairs oxygen delivery can cause an increased rate or effort. Pneumonia can occur with septicemia and can be subtle in the foal. Foals often fail to cough or display abnormal lung sounds and often do not have any nasal discharge. Bacterial or viral infections will vary based on age of the foal. Laboratory work and imaging are necessary to diagnose pneumonia and much of this can be accomplished in the field. A respiratory rate less than 20 or greater than 60 can be a significant cause for concern, and these foals require oxygen supplementation in the NICU if the rapid respiratory abnormalities.
Abnormal mucous membrane color
(yellow or grey) can indicate an underlying problem and warrant immediate investigation. Some mare’s develop antibodies to the red blood cells of their foals and these foals develop a condition known as NI (neonatal isoerythrolysis). The colostrum they consume contains antibodies which destroy their own red blood cells and causes iscterus-yellow discoloration of the mucous membranes. This condition often develops at 3 to 5 days of age and can be treated successfully in the field if identified early. It is also easily prevented by testing of the dam’s blood during the last 4 weeks of pregnancy.
Milk Dripping from the nostrils of a foal can indicate a neurologic issue or a functional abnormality of the pharynx. Foals with this issue are at risk for pneumonia, and further investigation is warranted.
Straining to urinate or defecate is not normal in the foal. Meconium impaction is the most common reason for straining or flagging of the tail. This occurs in the first day or two of life and is often successfully managed in the filed with diagnostic imagining and enema and fluid administration. Straining to urinate can be indicative of a ruptured bladder in the foal. Colts are more likely than fillies to be affected and these foals will often show progressive depression and a distended abdomen, Foals with ruptured bladders require referral to a NICU for medical and surgical management and have a good prognosis if not septic.
Swollen, cloudy or weeping eye requires immediate veterinary attention. Common foal issues include corneal ulceration from shavings or stall trauma, entropion (folding of the lid into the cornea), or more seriously, uveitis. Uveitis in a newborn can indicate spsis and carries a poor prognosis.
Swollen or moist umbilicus. The umbilicus is the second most likely route of entry for infectious agents in the foal, after the gut. Swelling or moisture warrant immediate investigation and can be indicative of infection or a patent urachus. The urachus is the umbilical remnant that carried fetial waste from the foal’s bladder to the outer placental sack. This umbilicus can be imaged ultrasonigraphically in the field and most umbilical conditions require referral and surgical removal. Occasionally, foals can have significant internal umbilical infections with no external signs.
Smart Tips as mare gets close to foaling
Ensuring a healthy foaling environment. Bacteria encountered by the newborn foal in a dirty, poorly ventilated stall can easily override the antibodies received from the mare’s colostrum, even if the foal’s IgG is at or above the desired level of 800 mg/dl. In nature, a mare will wander off to as site of her choosing that is free of manure. The ground is baked by the sun, which minimizes pathogen levels. On a farm, it is a different situation.
Before placing the mare in the stall, inspect the stall and eliminate hazards such as raised nails, large splinters and water buckets. High-quality, dust-free straw is the preferred bedding; wood shavings can be inhaled by the newborn foal. Foals maintained on straw for the first three weeks of life has been shown to be less likely to develop umbilical infections.
Disinfect the stall before foaling
- Remove all bedding.
- Remove all non-permanent objects, such as buckets and feeders. Using a mixture of hot water and dish detergent, scrub them free of residue. Rinse thoroughly, then scrub again with a solution of 1 part laundry-type chlorine bleach to 10 parts water. Allow them to air-dry without rinsing. Scrub one mare time with hot water and dish detergent. Rinse thoroughly remove any bleach or detergent residue.
- Sweep cobwebs, dust, hay, and other debris from the stall floor, walls, ledges and door.
- Wash walls and other solid surfaces using a pressure washer (or garden hose), a stiff scrub brush and dishwashing detergent.
- Mix Lysol disinfectant concentrate (2 ½ tablespoons per gallon of water) in a garden-type spray tank. Wear protective clothing, including long sleeves, long pants, gloves, goggles and head gear. Spray a soaking mist of disinfectant onto all surfaces and allow to air-dry. Repeat.
- Return clean buckets and feeder to you horse’s bed with clean straw.
All of us at Horse Tales Publications hope that your 2022 foals come into the world healthy and vibrant and that you and your mamma mare’s foaling experiences are nothing short of amazing and miraculous! But if you should encounter any problems, we hope that this article will help you identify them in a timely manner and that you are able to prevent serious emergencies or health problems.
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