from the Vet Corner Archives

Part of Horse Previews Magazine website. Posted on 6/1/97; 10:00:00 AM.

Veterinary Corner 6/97: The Sick Foal

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

Sick foals show much more subtle signs of illness than adults do; in addition, their condition tends to deteriorate much more rapidly. For these reasons, it is important to recognize the signs of illness as quickly as possible.

It is helpful to learn what is normal for your mare and foal. Feel the mare's udder daily. If it is harder or larger than it was in the recent past, then this may be an indication that the foal is nursing less than it usually does. You may also notice that the mare is dripping or streaming milk on to the foal's face from an udder that is over distended from decreased nursing.

Feel the foal's umbilicus daily. Any enlargement or discharge is abnormal, and a veterinarian should be called to examine the foal. Dip the navel in 0.5% chlorhexadine daily for 3 to 4 days.

Transient "foal heat" diarrhea is common approximately one week postfoaling, and it often clears up without treatment. Diarrhea accompanied by a change in attitude (listlessness), decreased nursing, or a fever (over 102.2 F) is abnormal and should be investigated.

Examine the foals legs carefully every day. Swelling and lameness are usually caused by potentially lifethreatening infections that need immediate treatment. Never assume otherwise - call your veterinarian.

Most (but not all) foals will have a personality change when they are sick.. A normal foal is either napping soundly or, when awake, is perky and interested in exploring its dam and surroundings - it is very curious. Take some time to get to know the personality of your foal. If it appears to have less interest in its surroundings, or appears weak in any way (takes more time to get under the mare to nurse, moves around more slowly instead of the normal "jumpy" behavior, or is wobbly), seek veterinary assistance.

Most of the abnormalities outlined in this article are caused by systemic infections that respond to antibiotic treatment when caught early enough. Delaying treatment even overnight can have devastating consequences for a young foal. Be especially alert to signs of illness in foals that had difficult births or who were born premature or otherwise abnormal. These foals are at high risk.

Prevention is the best way to control neonatal infections. Make sure all foals have an examination and blood test at 8 to 16 hours after foaling. The exam will help detect problems earlier, and the blood test will indicate which foals might need treatment to boost their immune function during those critical first days of life. Keep the foal in as clean an environment as possible. Straw is the best bedding for the first week.

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