Reprinted from The Horse Report with permission from the Center for Equine Health, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis.
The birth of a foal is an exciting time, marking the end of a year of anticipation and the beginning of a brand new life. Every owner hopes for an uneventful birth and a strong, healthy foal that will thrive and grow into a robust horse. But roughly 3 to 7% of newborn foals have some kind of significant health issue in the first month of life and need intensive care to survive.
As human and veterinary medicine have become more intertwined, newborn foals with health problems have benefited from advances made in the care of human infants. Attesting to this are the number of equine neonatal intensive care units (or NICUs) that have sprung up around the country since the first one was founded at the University of Florida in 1982.
A sick foal is a challenging patient. His immune system is still naive, putting the foal at high risk for infection, and its blood chemistry can vary wildly. Premature or sick foals often lack minimal energy supplies, increasing the risk for hypoglycemia, hypothermia, and organ dysfunction.
Like human infants, foals differ physiologically from their adult counterparts and require specialized treatment based on an understanding of their unique physiology. As foals undergo a number of transitions from life in the uterus to birth, complex behavioral, metabolic, cardiopulmonary, endocrine, hematologic, and other systems changes occur.