Your Foal Has Arrived … Is it OK?
You have been "patiently" awaiting the arrival of your new foal for 11 long months. You’ve given your mare the best possible care and while you expect a normal, healthy baby; as will occur in the vast majority of cases. If you are like most of us you will wonder, "Is everything OK"?

The Normal Foal
Standing and nursing within two hours are still the best signs of a healthy foal. Usual physical exam parameters like temperature, pulse and respiration are so variable in a newborn foal as to be almost useless for diagnosis. That does not mean a physical exam is not important. Recording these parameters and then watching them to see that they move toward more normal numbers for young foals can be an early clue of problems. The foal also needs to be checked for congenital problems that may cause problems later. The first step in evaluating a foal’s condition is knowing what is normal:

  1. Gestational length should be, on average, 340 days, although healthy foals have been delivered as late as 365 days.
  2. Normal, uneventful, "easy" delivery, with active labor of about 20 minutes.
  3. Stabilizes respiration and heart rate within the first few hours.(normal values: respiration less than 40 breaths/min., heart rate less than 80 beats/min.)
  4. The mare becomes rapidly attached to the foal.
  5. The foal becomes attached to the mare and "following" instinct strongly developed soon after birth.
  6. Passes meconium within about the first 2-4 hours. Some straining is normal but should produce a dark sticky stool.
  7. Colts should be watched closely for urinating.

Early Warning List
Following is a list of situations that may indicate trouble brewing:

  1. Premature foal (gestational length of less than 330 days) with a soft, silky hair coat, floppy ears, low birth weight, weak, crooked legs, etc.
  2. The foal who was the result of prolonged delivery ( greater than 30 minutes).
  3. The foal who has respiratory distress or whose respirations seem to become more labored and faster.
  4. The foal who fails to stand and nurse unassisted in less than 2 hours.
  5. The foal whose dam has only small amounts of milk (agalactia), which is of a thin watery consistency.
  6. The foal exhibiting abnormal behavior or obvious physical deformities.
  7. The mare refuses to allow the foal to nurse.

Something Is Wrong
Carefully monitor the newborn over the first days, even those foals appearing normal and healthy at birth can develop problems later on. Watch for:

  1. Behavioral changes. Foals should become stronger and more active over the first few days. The first sign of serious trouble may be increased time down and sleepiness.
  2. Distended abdomen and failure to pass urine within eight hours.
  3. Does not pass meconium, strains to defecate and appears uncomfortable.
  4. Jaundiced appearance (yellowish eyes and gums).
  5. Diarrhea combined with depression (not to be confused with normal foal-heat diarrhea).
  6. Any lameness or swelling in the young foal. Assume that the abnormality is related to infection until that possibility is ruled out.
  7. Swelling, drainage or pain in the umbilicus (navel stump).

Care for the Healthy Newborn Foal
It is standard that the navel be dipped in betadine solution several times daily over the first couple of days. Studies show no decrease in navel infections when this is not done. A recent study showed 0.5 % chlorhexidine [1 part Nolvasan (TM) in 3 parts water] is the dip of choice for navels. Strong iodine is avoided due to its caustic properties.

Single antibiotic injections for the foal at birth are of no use in preventing infections and in my mind are contraindicated as they help create a resistant population of bacteria. A chance of an unexpected reaction to the antibiotic is always possible too.

Passive Transfer is Very Important
An important test to be sure your foal is well protected against disease is an IgG test. This test will make sure the foal received adequate antibodies from the mares milk. An IgG test on the foal 16 hours after he first nursed would seem prudent to me. IgG is shorthand for the type of immunoglobulin the foal receives from the mares colostrum. An immunoglobulin is a protein that is produced by the cells of the immune system that circulates in the blood and provides defense against infectious diseases and toxins. So, if everything goes well, the mare secretes her own IgG into the colostrum or first milk to the foal.

IgG is a rather large protein molecule that would normally be digested in the stomach and small bowel and there fore lose its ability to fight infections. However for about the first 12 hours after birth, the bowl is receptive to these large protein molecules and will absorb them intact. This process of production, secretion, ingestion, and absorption, is called passive transfer.

Some problems that may prevent passive transfer are: 1. No colostrum 2. Low levels of IgG in the colostrum 3. Foal does not nurse well 4. Foal does not absorb the proteins well So you can see there are all types of reason for failure. There are a number of ways to check to see if the process is working.

The colostrum can be checked for immunoglobulin content by checking it’s specific gravity with a hydrometer. Specific gravities greater than 10.60 are considered good and tends to be sticky between the fingers.

A better way to check for adequate passive transfer is by running a check on the foal’s blood at 16 hours after the foal has first nursed. There are very accurate, easy to read tests for this that the vet can run on the serum. The problem is interpretation of the results. We know the foal with less than 200 mg/dl IgG in it’s blood is going to have problems. In the past 400 mg/dl has been considered the low end of acceptable. However in the 200 to 400 range a lot of controversy appears. It is best to consider the IgG level in light of the total picture. The 200 to 400 range might be OK if the foal and mare are healthy and the environment optimal. On the other hand levels below 800 (yes 800!) is not acceptable in the foal who is already sick. The foal uses up and breaks down the mare IgG. We know infection rapidly diminishes the IgG levels.

Should every foal be checked? Remember, once a foal develops a systemic infection they are very difficult and expensive to treat. These tend to be mixed, resistant, toxin producing, gram negative blood infections. On the other hand a mare and foal with a picture perfect foaling and no indication of problems is unlikely to have problems. If the problem is caught in the first 24 hours before infection develops it can be prevented with a simple transfusion. You must decide if spending the extra 50 to 10 dollars for the test is worth while. I usually put it to the clients this way, "if you would spend 500 to a 1000 dollars on treating a sick foal with a guarded to fair prognosis, do the test". Of course when ever there are risk factors present, I always strongly recommend the test as long as the cost of the transfusion, if the test shows problems, is not prohibitive.

Vaccinating the Foal
Vaccinating the newborn foal is controversial too. The foal gets all his initial resistance to disease from the mares first milk. His immune system is competent, it just hasn’t decided what is bad for the foal yet. Vaccinations may tie up some of the mare’s antibodies and actually make the foal more susceptible to infection. We know this does not happen with the tetanus vaccination, so it is safe at this time. Other vaccines are still not known. Usually the foal is well protected for the first 3 months. Best for the foal is to be sure the mare is vaccinated one month prior to birth, then the foal get his first vaccines at 3 months of age.

Another standard treatment is an enema for the foal. Standard Fleet enemas that are available at the drug store are used. It is true that most foals strain somewhat to pass their meconium for the first day, but few actually require treatment.

A lot of the common practices are of questionable value, but when carefully done are of minimal harm. The most important factor for preventing infections is a well vaccinated mare, healthy horses, and a clean, dry, environment. Even better than a clean stall is a good grassy pasture. Dusty or damp areas are to be avoided. The foal should be allowed pasture exercise as soon as practical.

Don’t Forget the Mare
The mare needs to be checked for traumatic complications to the reproductive tract, adequate colostrum production, and complete passage of the placenta. Crampiness following birth is normal but if the mares colicky behavior is severe or worsens over time complications like a torn uterus or uterine artery rupture should be investigated. The mare will be anxious after the foal is born and free choice good quality hay will go a long way towards relaxing her. She will now need extra protein and calcium in her diet, so alfalfa hay is a good choice, but make feed changes slowly. The placenta should pass within a couple of hours of birth and if not by 8 hours she will need immediate treatment. If the mares worming program is less than optimal, a deworming with ivermectin should be done now.

A Final Word of Advice
The most common killer of neonatal foals is infection. A foal can go from healthy to critically ill in less than a day. If you suspect something is wrong with your foal, now is the time to act. If you wait until he is very ill his chances of survival become poor. Good mare care and a clean, dry environment are your best protection against problems.

Contributed By: Robert N. Oglesby DVM

This article reprinted with permission from Horseadvice.com, an internet information resource for the equestrian and horse industry since 1994. On the WWW at www.horseadvice.com we have tens of thousands of documents on the web about horse care, diseases, and training.