from the Vet Corner Archives

Part of Horse Previews Magazine website. Posted on 05/05/2000; 2:00:00PM.

Veterinary Corner 05/00: The High Risk Foal

by Katherine Burnett, DVM
Edgecliff Equine Hospital
S. 1322 Park Road, Spokane, WA 99212 * 509/924-6069

The High Risk Foal

Foals are delicate creatures. Once they are sick, treatment is often expensive, time consuming, and frequently unsuccessful. There are several risk factors, however, which, when identified, help identify foals that are of high risk of developing medical problems. Preventive steps can then be undertaken.

Risk factors can be either associated with the dam's pregnancy, the foaling period, or the foal itself. Factors associated with pregnancy that increase the risk of illness to the foal include these conditions in the mare: thinness, discharge of pus from the uterus, colic, illness, especially with fever, treatments with certain drugs, chronic lameness which prevents mare from lying down and positioning the foal properly, long distance trailering, respiratory conditions, cesarean section, or dripping milk before foaling.

Factors associated with the foaling period that increase risk of illness to the foal include: Prolonged labor, foal that must be pulled for any reason, premature separation of the placenta ("red bag" delivery), deliveries that have been induced, premature delivery (before 320 days), and excessive bleeding from the umbilical cord. Dirty stalls are also a risk factor.

Red alert risk factors in the foal include birth defects, prematurity, abnormally small size, death of the dam, delay in ingestion of colostrum (ideally the foal should be nursing well within 2 hours after birth), weak foals or those who do not rise and nurse by three hours of age, and twins.

Prior to foaling, several tests can be performed in high risk mares to help determine the health of the pregnancy. Blood tests can be performed to measure hormone levels and screen for infection. Antibiotics and/or hormone therapy may be indicated depending on the results. Ultrasound can detect signs of fetal distress and assess the integrity of the placenta. Your veterinarian may recommend these tests if the pregnancy appears to be at risk. It is especially important to monitor high risk pregnancies so that foaling can be attended and the foal assessed for signs of illness right away.

The leading cause of death in foals under the age of 7 days is a bacterial infection known as septicemia. The risk factors that I have described in this article, either alone or in combination, may increase the risk of infection. It goes without saying that every precaution should be undertaken to prevent risk factors. Despite the best efforts of those involved, however, risk factors frequently develop. John Madigan, D.V.M., M.S., has been the director of the equine neonatal unit of the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine for over 10 years. He suggests that if we identify risk factors for illness in newborn foals, we may be able to prevent illness in many of these foals with some low risk treatments and management techniques. Unless indicated, the following suggestions apply to all mares and foals, not just those with risk

1. Be present for the delivery. Do not let the foal nurse until the mare's udder, hindquarters and area below the vulva have been washed with copious amounts of soap and water, rinsed and dried. Ingestion of bacteria by the foals as it seeks out the udder may be a significant cause of infection in the foal.

2. If the foal does not nurse within an hour of foaling, but wants to suck, milk 2 to 4 ounces of colostrom from the udder (cut the end of the barrel off the injection end of a 60 cc syringe and turn the plunger around. This makes a great udder pump). Feed this to the foal in a human baby bottle with the nipple hole enlarged.

3. If the foal is weak, do not try to bottle feed it. It needs to be tube fed right away, and a vet should be called immediately.

4. If the foal is not nursing on its own within 90 minutes for any reason, call the vet. It should be tube fed and examined right away.

5. Foals from unattended births, or those with risk factors for infection, may benefit from a 3-day course of antibiotics. One or two injections are given once a day for 3 days. The risk of adverse affects from these antibiotics is very, very small, and the benefits can be enormous.

It is recommended that all mares and foals have a complete physical examination 8 to 12 hours post foaling. At that time a blood test should be performed to determine whether or not the foal has received and absorbed adequate amount of colostrum from its dam. A plasma transfusion may be indicated in some foals, and can be performed on the farm.

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