The arrival of a new foal is certainly an exciting event. Foals are uniquely fragile in comparison to an adult horse, and there can be subtle indicators of ill health which may help you decide when you need veterinary assistance. At birth, there is also a timeline of important events which will help you make a preliminary assessment of the foal’s health. The general rule with all foals is that TIME IS CRITICAL, and any suspicion of ill health requires immediate veterinary attention.
It is first necessary to consider prepartum, peripartum, and postpartum risk factors for the foal. Mares with a history of reproductive issues including previous dystocia (problem birth), mares which have suffered from illness in the later stages of pregnancy, foals that are premature (less than 320 days) or late (greater than 360 days) all represent pre-partum risk factors. ANY abnormal birth, even if it has been resolved prior to a veterinary visit, represents significant risk for the foal. It is important to realize that these foals often appear normal in the early stages of life but can rapidly deteriorate. Postpartum risk factors include being born into unsanitary or cold environments and failure to drink adequate colostrum (first milk) in the early stages of life. Foals are born without antibodies to fight infection, and colostrum is the only natural source of antibodies in the early stage of life. This process of transporting antibodies from the mare to the foal is called passive transfer and is one of the reasons that mares should have a tetanus booster in the few weeks before birth. If the mare is running milk in the days or weeks prior to foaling, let your veterinarian know, since she may have lost the vital antibodyfilled colostrum. The antibodies in the colostrum can only be absorbed by the foal in the first 24 hours of life, but most healthy foals will absorb more than enough antibodies in the first 12. Because of this we recommend antibody (IgG) testing all foals at 12-24 hours of age. This involves a simple blood test and gives us a true measure of the amount of antibodies the foal has absorbed. In the event of a low or borderline result, if the foal is less than 24 hours old, we are able to provide more antibodies via colostrum during the absorptive window. In foals with very low passive transfer or older than 24 hours, the only way we can provide antibodies is via an antibody enriched plasma that is transfused into the blood. Remember that foals with low antibody levels are at significantly greater risk of infection.
A normal foal typically stands within an hour of birth and nurses within two hours. She should have a strong suck reflex and demonstrate normal behavior such as response to visual and auditory stimulation and rapid bonding with the mare. The instinct to follow the mare is normally strongly developed soon after birth, and the mare should also become rapidly attached to the foal. Within four hours, and often much earlier, you should see the foal pass meconium. Meconium is a firm, dark, sticky stool made up of dead cells swallowed by the foal while in utero. Foals can develop meconium impactions (blockage), so any signs of straining, or the absence of meconium necessitate veterinary attention.
It is important to ensure that your foal is urinating frequently and that urine isn’t dribbling from the umbilical area. Urine should be passed within eight to twelve hours of birth. Failure to pass urine, a distended abdomen (bloat) or urine dripping from the navel may indicate a bladder problem which will require veterinary intervention. Infection is the most common source of illness in the foal, so it is a good idea to dip or spray the navel with dilute chlorhexidine or iodine solution to minimise the chance of infection via the umbilicus.
Dysmature foals are born at appropriate gestation but demonstrate features consistent with prematurity. Dysmature and premature foals are considered to have “unreadiness for birth” (URB). These foals can sometimes appear superficially normal in the early stages of life but are at serious risk of quickly developing ill health. URB foals are often thin and “ribby” and can have laxity of the flexor tendons resulting in hyperextension of the distal limbs. They can have domed heads, floppy ears with fine silky hair coats and may have retained their synechium (slipper hooves). They often have poor affinity for the mare and poor suck reflex. In many cases not all of these signs may be present in a URB foal, but veterinary assessment is required nevertheless.
Even apparently healthy foals with no risk factors are susceptible to infection and can rapidly become sick. Signs of infection include lying down a lot, failure to nurse, diarrhoea, depression, and lameness. Constipation or a ruptured bladder usually manifest with signs of colic which include lying down a lot, rolling, and teeth grinding. Newborn foals should be observed at least several times a day for the first week of life, as early detection of problems often results in a better outcome.
At birth a foal’s legs often look a little crooked which may be a cause for concern. Normally, within the first few days of life a remarkable transformation takes place and those bent legs suddenly look a lot straighter as the foal becomes stronger. In some foals however very flexed limbs can be a serious problem and early intervention by a vet is vital. The first 24 hours of a foal’s life are critical in the health of the foal. Although this article covers some of the clues to look out for, there is no substitute for veterinary examination. We offer comprehensive MARE AND FOAL examinations designed to spot problems early. This should be carried out within the first 24 hours, but ideally as close to 12 hours post birth as possible. This is also a perfect opportunity to test the antibody level of the foal’s blood. As always, don’t hesitate to call the clinic to speak to one of our vets with any questions or concerns!