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Foal Care

Management of Newborn Foals (First 7 days)

These procedures are meant to be a guide for the routine management of foals. It is not an exhaustive list of neonatal medicine but rather a guide for the horse owner to assist them in the first few days after birth.

It is very important to monitor the new born foal during the first week of life to ensure an optimal chance of survival. Foals are not 50Kg horses. Their condition can deteriorate quickly. Close monitoring in the first week is important. Keep them warm and in a clean, dry  environment.

Foals are born after approximately 340 days gestation. This time can be variable with some normal foals born 20 days sooner of later. Colt foals usually have a longer gestation (time in the mare) than fillies; foals born in late winter or early spring can take up to 10 days longer than foals born in the middle of spring.

Some foals are born premature, others are born fully developed but not fully aware (dysmature), whilst some may be born at the correct gestational length but succumb to infection and disease such as diarrhoea or pneumonia, and not survive beyond the first three months of life. Signs of prematurity include a small body size, fine body hair, laxity of limbs and a domed head.

Normal clinical signs of the newborn are listed below:

  • Mentation  - Bright, alert, responsive
  • Rectal Temp - 37.2 – 38.5
  • Heart Rate - 80-135 beats/min
  • Respiration Rate - 20-40 breaths/min
  • Gum Colour - Pink, Moist, Capillary Refill < 1sec
  • Time until stand - 30min
  • Time until suckle - 120min
  • Time until urinate - 8 hrs

A brief examination of the foal by the handler should include checking their eyes, teeth alignment, the roof of the mouth for a cleft palate (opening), palpate the ribs for evidence of fractures (9th and 10th rib commonly), umbilical hernia, leg angles and gait. Ensure that the foal is attaching to the udder when feeding under the mare and not missing the teat.

They will spend a large part of the time feeding especially within the first week of life; feeding about seven times every hour. They drink 15-30% of their body weight each day i.e. 7.5 – 15L in frequent, small feeds.

Foals which don’t drink regularly or frequently from the mare may be showing early signs of trouble. Look for udder distension in the mare or foals which are sleeping excessively.

Foals receive all of their immunity from the mare through the milk (colostrum). This immunity protects the foal from disease. Within 12 hrs of birth foals need 200-250ml of good quality colostrum. Orphan foals can be given cows colostrum, however this is not as ideal as what the mare produces.

A blood sample taken from the foal within 24 hrs of birth can measure the transfer of this immunity. Low levels of IgG (immunity) means that the foal will need plasma intravenously. Antibiotics alone do not suppress diseases such as diarrhoea and pneumonia in foals with inadequate immune levels.

Umbilical cords need to be treated ideally as soon as they rupture because the stump is a very good portal of entry for bacteria into the blood stream. Ideally the umbilical stump is dipped in chlorhexidine or iodine preparation. Some strong iodine mixture can harm the skin of foals. Dip the umbilical cord every 6-8 hrs for the first day.

Tetanus prophylaxis cover may be give with a TAT given under the skin on day one.

Enemas are given within the first 4 hours after foaling to avoid the foal getting gut pain from impaction of faeces. Signs of impacted meconium can be failure to drink, rolling, and sweating. Meconium retention is more of a problem in colt foals. Soapy water (300ml warm water with lux flakes) can be give via a 10ml syringe rectally. Gentle digital manipulation with a gloved finger can assist to remove the faecal pellets. Avoid causing trauma to the anus.

Limb deformities such as contracted tendons, angular limb deformities and joint laxity (floppy joints) are all problems which are also treated within the first week of the foal’s life. Mild cases can improve with limited, controlled exercise. Severe cases need to be restricted in a stall. Feet trimming and rasping during the first week may be needed to correct feet alignment.

Ruptured bladders (fillies more common than colts) can be caused during the trauma of birth or with lifting foals. Monitor urine output and signs of straining (especially without urine production), a round belly and depression.

Foals can also be born with turned in eyelid (entropion) which can lead to ulceration of the eye and permanent problems. Some cases do improve as the foal gains weight with feeding but most do need veterinary attention.