Milk Necessary For Orphaned or Rejected Foals

If your foal is orphaned at birth, or rejected by his dam, your first consideration is to get him to ingest some colostrum, writes Karen Briggs in the January edition of The Horse. The all-important first milk will jump-start your foal's immune system through a process called passive transfer of antibodies. A foal can only absorb and utilize colostrum effectively during the first 12 hours of his life, so time is of the essence.

It's always wise to be prepared for an emergency by keeping some frozen colostrum on hand, milked from a mare with an abundance of the thick, creamy fluid to spare (or in some cases, from a mare whose foal was stillborn). Colostrum can be collected by the mare owner and stored (after filtering to remove dirt particles) in an ordinary freezer bag for up to two years. Freezer bags are ideal because they can be labeled easily with the date and thawed quickly when immersed in warm water. It's important not to microwave frozen colostrum to thaw it; microwaving will destroy most of the antibodies.

You can milk colostrum every two hours from a mare which has a stillborn foal, until six to 12 hours after foaling. A mare which is supporting a foal usually can afford to donate about 250 milliliters (about four ounces), after her foal nurses. About 16 fluid ounces constitute a single feeding for a newborn foal, and most experts recommend that an orphan receive three to four feedings within the first eight hours of life.

If your breeding operation is a small one, and you've been unable to collect any colostrum yourself, you might be able to purchase some from a large breeding farm, where it undoubtedly will be kept in good supply. You even can arrange emergency shipments through Web site services such as

Feeding a newborn colostrum usually is a matter of gently warming the milk to equine body temperature and offering it by bottle. Some perseverance is required, as some foals take awhile to get the idea. Hunger, however, tends to be a great motivator. If you can't get your foal to nurse, your veterinarian might have to administer the colostrum via stomach tube.

In a pinch, it's possible to use bovine colostrum, which is well-tolerated by foals, but provides a shorter-lasting immunity (averaging about nine days instead of the 26 afforded by equine colostrum). There also are a number of commercial colostrum substitutes that can be recommended by your veterinarian if a mare's colostrum is unavailable.