Some NY Farms Experiencing Foaling Problems

Some New York breeding farms have experienced an unusual number of foaling problems so far this breeding season, and slightly higher incidences of sickness and herpes virus abortions.

There is evidence to suggest at least a loose connection between the premature separation of the placenta in foaling, known as red bag, and the mare reproductive loss syndrome that struck Kentucky's breeding industry in 2001. Most of the red bag deliveries involve mares bred in Kentucky last year. At one farm, approximately 10% of the births have been red bags, but all of the foals survived.

Mares are reportedly not having trouble getting back in foal again.

According to several farm managers, foal deaths are not reported to any agency in New York. In most cases, they are kept secret to avoid bad publicity, so it is impossible to make a statistical analysis. However, anecdotal reports by people in the industry say the number of deaths is not out of the ordinary.

Phil Trowbridge, veteran farm manager at Gallagher's Stud in Ghent, N.Y., said there had been a single foal death on the farm.

"The one that we did lose was a fungal lung infection. It was a red bag presentation," Trowbridge said. "You have to wonder. It was a mare that was bred in Kentucky. You have to wonder whether or not the problems they had last year didn't contribute to the problem we had.

"You don't know. Nobody can tell you."

Dr. Amy Grice, a partner at Rhinebeck Equine, said she has encountered six to eight unusual foals deaths while caring for approximately 350 mares at farms in New York's Hudson Valley. Grice said those deaths have been part of a trying few months for farm staff and veterinarians.

"It's certainly the worst season that I can remember, and this is my 12th breeding season, but I don't think there is any one particular problem," Grice said. "There is a constellation of things going on. We just happen to be having a lot of Clostridial diarrhea in the foals this year, which sort of comes and goes. My last outbreak was in '97. So we've had five years without any. We happen to be seeing quite a bit of that this year. In talking to colleagues around the area as well our practice, other practices are seeing more this year than they generally do."

The diarrhea may be localized in the eastern Hudson Valley region between Albany and New York City. Joe McMahon, owner of McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds, some 75 miles north of Rhinebeck, and Dr. C. Lynwood O'Cain, resident veterinarian and farm manager at Highcliff Farm in Delanson, about 50 miles to the west, said they have not had any diarrhea on their farms this season. Neither McMahon nor O'Cain has had any deaths from foals of Kentucky-bred mares.

Grice said the diarrhea is caused by Clostridium difficile bacteria.

"It causes a watery diarrhea and colic signs that occur in the first 24 to 48 hours after birth, when they are quite vulnerable," she said. "Some of them stop nursing and then they end up needing intravenous fluids and round-the-clock supportive care."

Grice said she knows of no foals that have died as a direct result of the diarrhea.

"The other thing that we're seeing some of is a few more herpes virus abortions this year than we generally see," she said.

"And then there have been some unrelated and sort of unexplained foaling problems that I guess are not unexpected. We had a real influx of mares from Kentucky last year. People afraid, perhaps, brought mares into New York thinking it was a better, safe place somehow. But we've had a disproportionate number of mares that are foaling close to term but not with signs of readiness. And they've been having a premature separation of the placenta.

"The foals have been appearing asphyxiated, some of them have been septic, which is when they have a bacterial infection in their bloodstream. Most of those foals have died. I don't think we have a big problem in New York. I think we have a couple of things going on that are not related. It's our bad luck that they're all happening in the same year."

Tests following the unusual foal deaths Grice has encountered indicated mold or fungus on grass as sources of the problems, but have not been conclusive.

"We've gotten more negatives than anything else," she said. "We know what they aren't. It's a fairly small proportion. What is troubling about it is all the ones that we don't know what's happening with are mares that were bred during the difficulty in Kentucky last year.

"The ones that we don't know what's going on with are coming back as heavy edematous placentas.

"A separate population of mares, though, are red bagging and having dead foals that are herpes virus abortions. Those are expected events," she said. "But there is this separate sort of small population group that is not fitting in. There have been six or eight of them, which is not very many."

According to Grice, the symptoms in the non-herpes group have been consistent.

"Basically, those foals have had very poor immune functions," she said. "They've had multiple bacteria, that was cultured from their blood cultures and from their tissues and they've had fungal infections, like their immune systems are not doing what they are supposed to do. Some of these foals have lived for a period of time and we've worked hard on them and they've still died."

McMahon, a veteran of some 30 years as a breeder and farm operator, said it is "business as usual" from his perspective.

"For as many mares as we have here, any problems we have is not a significant number," he said. "The mares that are bred in Kentucky or the ones that are bred here I'm not seeing anything that would say, `Wow, there is a problem.' "

Trowbridge, who has been at Gallagher's since 1976, said it is wrong to conclude that the events from one year to the next in the two states are necessarily related.

"Nobody knows what happened in Kentucky last year, so it's damn hard to link it to that, if you're being realistic about it," Trowbridge said. "The guys in Kentucky have spent a bazillion dollars and they have no idea what happened. It's hard to link it to something that you don't know what exactly caused it last year."

"They probably have the same caliber of problem in Kentucky. I talk to those vets all the time. What you're going to report happens all the time there. What is going on in New York is we had a couple of owners who panicked when they had a few sick foals, and there were a few deaths. I don't know how you characterize it.

"I've got foals in Kentucky, too. They've treated as many foals of mine in Kentucky as I've had to treat here. To me, the same thing is going on down there, but most of the people in Kentucky have seen this before, so they don't get quite as nervous."