By Lilly Haywood, VMD, and Laurie Metcalfe, DVM
Neonatal foals are susceptible to a plethora of problems not seen in adult horses. Because seemingly mild conditions can quickly become critical or even fatal, it is important to have a veterinarian evaluate all newborn foals within the first 24 hours of life. However, an astute owner can help the veterinarian greatly by recognizing normal parturition (birth) and post-foaling behavior and reporting any deviations.
Once the mare breaks water, the foal should be born within 20 to 30 minutes. After that a good general rule of thumb to remember is “1, 2, and 3”: The foal should stand within one hour of being born, should nurse within two hours, and the mare should pass her placenta within three hours. The foal should begin passing meconium (his first manure) within one to two hours. Call your veterinarian about any deviations from these time frames.
Have the mare’s colostrum (first milk) evaluated for quality using a refractometer. Colostrum contains important antibodies that help protect the newborn foal from infection during the first several months of life via a process called passive transfer. Failure to nurse or ingesting poor-quality colostrum can result in failure of passive transfer. Affected foals are at risk for developing sepsis (a bacterial infection in the bloodstream), which can lead to serious problems such as meningitis, pneumonia, and infected joints. Your veterinarian might perform blood tests, including an IgG and complete blood count, during the new foal exam to ensure he received adequate antibodies from his dam and has a competent immune system. If the colostrum is of poor quality and your foal is less than 12 hours old, your veterinarian might be able to tube him with colostrum from a donor mare. After 12 hours he or she can administer commercially available hyperimmunized plasma to provide the necessary antibodies.
For all the good colostrum does, sometimes ingestion leads to a problem known as neonatal isoerythrolysis. If the dam’s colostrum contains antibodies against the foal’s blood type, his body will begin lysing its own red blood cells. This can quickly weaken and even kill the foal. One of the first signs, other than generalized weakness, is yellow mucous membranes. Your veterinarian can perform a blood test on the mare prior to foaling and, if it detects these antibodies, he or she can administer donor colostrum and milk to the foal for the first 24 hours of life.
Another problem discerning owners can detect is dummy foal syndrome. These foals might have experienced a prolonged parturition, depriving them of oxygen and leaving them in a state of hypoxia. They often behave normally for the first 12 hours after birth, then begin to show abnormal behavior such as an inability to nurse, a change in mentation, and generalized weakness. These foals can quickly progress to complete recumbency (lying down) and often require around-the-clock nursing care.
Gastrointestinal problems can also occur. Meconium is the sticky, black fecal material that fills the fetal gastrointestinal tract. If the fetus becomes stressed in late gestation, it could pass meconium in utero, staining it and the surrounding fetal fluids. Meconium staining is a strong indication of a compromised foal, and your veterinarian should evaluate him as soon as possible. Retained meconium (meconium impaction) after the foal is born is one of the most common causes of neonatal colic. Clinical signs include rolling or straining to defecate. However, neonates can colic for many reasons; any signs of colic in your newborn should warrant an immediate call to your veterinarian.
Conformational problems in neonates also require prompt veterinary intervention. One of the most common conformational defects is tendon laxity. These foals generally require a gradual increase in exercise as their tendons strengthen slowly, but they don’t need bandaging. Tendon contracture, on the other hand, requires more veterinary involvement. If diagnosed early, many cases of contracture can be corrected with systemic medication and bandages. If allowed to progress, contracture becomes significantly more difficult to fix.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, we have attempted to highlight some of the most common problems we see in neonates. Knowing what is normal can be very helpful in determining when to call your veterinarian. And always be sure—even with a normal foaling—to have your veterinarian evaluate your newborn foal within 24 hours of birth.