Knowing how a normal foal should behave and when to call the veterinarian can go a long way toward avoiding a trip to an equine neonatal intensive care unit.
Pamela Wilkins, DVM, MS, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVECC, is head of equine medicine and surgery at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. She said, "if a foal is not standing and nursing by three hours of age, owners should call their veterinarian."
Neonates have minimal stores of glucose, and going without nursing for more than a few hours can cause hypoglycemia and lead to a downward spiral of events.
Owners should also be on the lookout for meconium, or the foal's first feces, which appears dark brown and sticky. Urine will not be produced until 8-18 hours after foaling, so owners should not be concerned if the neonate doesn't urinate soon after birth.
"One day after the foal has been born, a veterinarian should perform a thorough physical exam and draw blood to measure IgG levels," Wilkins said. Measuring whether or not a foal has received an adequate amount of antibodies from its mother's milk is critical in newborn horses. Because the mare's placenta is much thicker than a human's, the fetus is born with a sub-par immune system--making it very susceptible to disease if it does not nurse from its dam soon after birth.
If a blood test reveals an unacceptable level of antibodies in the foal's blood, the situation is termed "failure of passive transfer." To correct this, foals need to be treated immediately by a veterinarian with either plasma given intravenously or colostrum orally. If not treated, these foals are likely to become septic (have an infection in their blood) and die.
Once the foal is one day old, is nursing well, and gets the thumbs-up by your veterinarian, there are a few other signs to be on the lookout for. Because a few of the problems foals develop, such as a ruptured urinary bladder or meconium impaction, cause abdominal discomfort, Wilkins recommends that, "owners should observe the foal for signs of colic and make sure it is nursing frequently." Call your veterinarian if you notice the foal kicking at its belly or rolling excessively on the ground.
If you happen to find your newborn with milk dripping on its head, it is a good indicator that it is having a hard time finding the teat and might need human intervention and veterinary attention.
Finally, it is interesting to note that although equine medicine has progressed rapidly over the past decade with regards to neonatal care, "C-section and chemical induction of labor is not a place you want to go," noted Wilkins. Both of these options pose significant risks to the unborn fetus, and unless there is a medical reason to go this route, a mare should be allowed to foal when her body says it's time.
For more information on equine neonatal care, contact your local veterinarian.--Ashley Mitek
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Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.