In humans you tape them. In dogs you can fix them with a cage that fits outside the chest. But in foals, cracked or fractured ribs can be hard to find, present no easy solutions, and can be life-threatening.

Each winter and spring as foals are born, a small percentage–maybe one in 500–will be born with one or more ribs that are cracked or broken. That condition can be difficult to find. While foals which recover from fractured ribs usually have no residual problems, the condition can result in death. Therefore, preventing the problem, or catching it early, can be critical to a foal’s survival.

The ribs of a foal are usually damaged when a foal has some difficulty passing through the birth canal. The usual order for a foal is to come out forelegs first, followed by the head and shoulders, with the hind legs trailing, much like a diver going head first into a pool. If that sequence is changed or if, for example, one of the forelegs is trapped along the foal’s side, the pressure that results can cause damage to the immature ribs.

It also is possible that an unusually large foal could sustain broken or cracked ribs from the pressure in the birth canal even if it is properly positioned.

The fractured or cracked ribs can cause further problems, by either failing to function properly or, because of the jagged edges that result from a fracture, cutting surrounding tissue. Depending on how many ribs are involved and where they are, they can slice arteries or puncture the lungs or heart of the foal.

William Bernard, DVM, Diplomate ACVIM, at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, said the early signs of cracked or fractured ribs could turn up when the foal is palpated soon after birth. Among the signs Bernard said it is critical to watch for when palpating the new foal’s ribs are:

  • simply feeling the crack or break in the rib or ribs;
  • observing that the foal is