by Dr. Misty Parker, DVM
McKinlay & Peters Equine Hospital – Spokane, Washington
After a long winter, we welcome warmer weather, and with that, we welcome back another foaling season. It is just beginning, as we have had a few foals in the hospital in the last few weeks, but within a month we will be in full swing. It’s always exciting and uplifting to see a new baby frolicking in the pasture with its mother, and most of the time this is the case, but occasionally they need extra help. That’s when it becomes important to have a good relationship with a veterinarian.
A mare’s normal gestation length is 320-365 days, with an average around 345 days. Signs of impending parturition include udder development about a month prior, vulvar laxity and pelvic ligament laxity a week prior and teat wax 24-48 hours prior. Please keep in mind that these time frames are flexible and maiden mares don’t always follow the rules.
A foal born prior to 320 days is considered premature. Clinical signs that accompany prematurity can include low birth weight, silky hair coat, domed forehead, droopy ears, generalized weakness, flexor tendon laxity, pulmonary insufficiency, poor muscle development, and/or collapsed tarsal or carpal bones. A foal that displays these clinical signs that is over 320 days gestation is commonly known as dysmature.
Mares go through three stages of parturition. The first stage consists of uterine contractions and cervical dilation and lasts until the water breaks. It should range anywhere between 30 minutes to 4 hours. The second stage lasts about 20-40 minutes and is the actual delivery of the foal. Passing of the placenta completes the third stage and this can take 30 minutes to 3 hours. If the placenta has not passed in 3 hours it is considered an emergency. Never try to pull a placenta out, they are fragile and can tear easily. Even a small section of a placenta left inside the uterus of a mare can cause toxic metritis and potentially death.
The first thing normally seen during delivery is the amnion, which is a gray translucent sac surrounding the foal. Next you should see one front foot, followed by the second front foot and then the foal’s nose. The amnion is typically torn by movement from the foal’s head and front feet. If the sac does not rupture then the foal is at risk of suffocation and manual tearing of the amnion should be done. If the first thing you see is a bright red velvety bag, call your veteriarian immediately! This is called a “red bag” and signifies premature placental separation. Foals in this situation are in danger of extreme oxygen deprivation and immediate delivery of the foal is imperative.
A normal healthy foal should show signs of normal respiration within 1 minute after birth, be able to be up on their sternum within 5 minutes after birth, have a suckle reflex within 5 minutes, be attempting to stand within 30 minutes and be nursing from the udder within 1-3 hours. Nursing within the first 3-6 hours is extremely important because after 6 hours the ability of the foals’ stomach to absorb the mares’ colostrum is drastically impaired. Colostrum is the mares’ first milk and it is packed with immunoglobulins that are essential to build the foals’ immune system. Without it the foal is immunocompromised and unable to fight off disease. The immunoglobulins that the foal absorbs from the colostrum hit its peak levels in the blood stream within 18-24 hours. A simple blood test can be done at this point to confirm that the foal absorbed enough colostrum. If it has not, then we recommend giving intravenous plasma.
Shortly after birth we recommend dipping the umbilical stump. We prefer using 0.5% Chlorhexidine (A.K. A. Nolvasan Solution). Dipping the stump 3-4 times a day for the first 2-3 days is typically adequate. An empty syringe case, shot glass or Dixie cup work well for this. While you are doing so, monitor the umbilicus closely for dribbling of urine, reddening, swelling and heat.
Most mares foal unassisted without any complications and have healthy babies, however –
- If the foaling of your mare does not follow the normal sequence as listed above – call your veterinarian.
- If the foal does not appear to be progressing within the normal time frame as listed above – call your veterinarian.
- If your mare does not pass her placenta within 3 hours of foaling – call your veterinarian.
- We also recommend calling your veterinarian to schedule a well-baby check within 24-36 hours after foaling.
We wish everyone a wonderful Spring and the best of luck with those new foals!
— Dr. Misty Parker