One of the most thrilling and heartwarming experiences in the equine world is seeing a healthy foal stand within minutes of birth. However, sick foals can have some of the highest mortality rates in veterinary medicine. Therefore, the effort to save them takes a talented and dedicated team of professionals such as those at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), Equine Medical Emergency, Critical Care and Neonatology Service, who work around the clock to help newborns beat the odds.

Sick foals brought to UC Davis are admitted to the veterinary hospital’s Lucy G. Whittier Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). The team there, led by Gary Magdesian, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVECC, ACVCP, CVA, chief of service and Roberta A. and Carla Henry Endowed Chair in emergency medicine and critical care, handles the most complicated cases, providing coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Resident veterinarians, technicians, veterinary students, and undergraduate members of the UC Davis foal team are also part of the cooperative effort involved in managing these patients.

The NICU is equipped with customized stalls to support sick foals, allowing intensive management under the watchful eye of the mare in an adjoining stall.

Critical conditions the NICU staff treats include maladjusted foal syndrome, failure of passive transfer, neonatal isoerythrolysis, orthopedic problems (i.e., contracted legs, crooked legs), prematurity, sepsis, and much more. Additionally, the NICU performs post-foaling procedures such as providing physical therapy for foals with leg deformities; evaluating the mare’s reproductive tract with the hospital’s equine reproduction service; handling retained placentas; and milking mares to feed foals if necessary.

Premature foal care can be especially laborious. In addition to potential health problems, premature foals’ bones are not fully ossified (hardened), requiring them to stay off their feet for potentially weeks. To accomplish this, the NICU foal team sits with foals in their stalls and prevents them from standing up.

One team member recently tweeted, “Spent from 2:30 a.m. – 8 a.m. taking care of a foal in the neonatal ICU and somehow I’m not even tired.”

This dedication is needed to see mares and foals through a lengthy stay in the NICU. A foal named Brave recently spent 43 days in the NICU after he was born five weeks premature. Few equine hospitals have the capability to care for a critically sick foal around the clock for more than a month straight.

See this expert care of foals in action in the YouTube video “Foal Care at UC Davis.”