from the Vet Corner Archives

Part of Horse Previews Magazine website. Posted on 06/04/99; 2:00:00PM.


Veterinary Corner 6/99: Septicemia in Foals

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


It's spring time and many horse owners are eagerly awaiting the arrival of a new foal. They expect that the mare will give birth in the middle of the night and they will wake up to find a healthy foal nursing on a contented mare. Unfortunately, even under the best conditions, things can go wrong and it is important for owners to be aware of common problems in newborn foals so they can prevent and/or correct them.

The most common cause of death in young foals is septicemia. Septicemia is defined as the presence of bacteria in the bloodstream. Foals that are affected are said to be "septic." As with any type of infection, the outcome is determined by the interaction between the foal's immune system and the infectious agent, which in this case is bacteria such as Foals are born without a competent immune system and must receive antibodies from the mare's colostrum or another source in order to be able to ward off infections. Your veterinarian can check to see if a foal has received enough antibodies using a simple blood test. If the foal does not get enough antibodies, a "failure of passive transfer" is said to have occurred, and the veterinarian can give the foal some additional antibodies. Failure of passive transfer occurs because the foal did not get enough colostrum due to lack of nursing, or because the mare did not produce enough colostrum.

Checking for adequate passive transfer is crucial preventative medicine for any foal. By the time a foal starts showing signs of illness, the disease process may be too advanced to save the foal's life or the foal may be left with permanent, debilitating health problems.

A foal may become septic if it has not received enough antibodies and/ or when it is exposed to large amounts of harmful bacteria. Exposure may occur from an infected umbilical stump, a mare that was sick during pregnancy, or simply from ingesting bacteria from a dirty environment. The bacteria get into the bloodstream and travel throughout the body, causing harm to many organ systems including the lungs and the digestive tract.

A foal with septicemia may initially appear healthy. Signs of illness include weakness, lethargy, lack of nursing, swollen joints, or diarrhea. If any of these signs appear, a veterinarian should be called to examine the foal. Sick foals do not always have a fever. With careful observation and management practices, foals at risk for developing septicemia can be identified early and steps taken to prevent serious illness. Foals that are at risk for septicemia include premature foals, twins, foals that have had a difficult birth, and foals born to mares that have abnormal placentas. These foals may be given additional antibodies, as well as antibiotics. They may also have blood collected to check for white cells, glucose levels and the presence of bacteria.

If a foal becomes septic, it will require extensive treatment and monitoring. The foal may need IV drugs, fluids, supplemental oxygen, and feeding via a nasogastric tube. In severe cases, the foal may even need to be placed on a ventilator to assist breathing. All of this care can require hospitalization. The earlier the illness is detected, the better chance there is for the foal's survival.

Obviously, prevention is the best method for dealing with septicemia. A good program for the mare includes palpation and booster vaccines at 5, 7, and 9 months of gestation. The foaling should take place in a clean, warm environment, and the mare's udder should be washed prior to nursing. A veterinarian should examine the mare and foal within the first 24 hours after birth. The foal should be checked for adequate passive transfer and the mare should be checked to ensure that she has not experienced excessive trauma during the delivery. A veterinarian should also examine the placenta for any abnormalities. Even foals that have been observed to stand and nurse within a few hours after birth should be checked for antibody levels, as there is no other way to tell if the foal ingested enough colostrum. If the foal does not stand on its own within two hours, a veterinarian should definitely be called.

All of these precautions may seem excessive for an animal like the horse that rarely needs assistance with delivery and that is born in a relatively mature state. Septicemia is, however, such a severe illness that any steps taken to prevent it are always worthwhile. Even under the best circumstances, foals may become ill and die. Identification of risk factors and the implementation of preventative measures are the best methods for dealing with septicemia. Remember, your veterinarian will be happy to answer any of your questions, and the two of you should work together to ensure the healthy development of new foals.

Happy Trails

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