This time of year, I start looking for signs of spring even though there is still a lot of winter left. While some people look for those first birds returning from the south, or snowdrops poking through the snow, I feel as though the first signs of warmer weather are the foals that start arriving as soon as the new year arrives. Of course, Thoroughbreds are bred so that foals are born as close to January 1 as possible. Thatís so the horse, once it starts its racing career training, has had the maximum time to grow and mature.
Waiting for the babies to arrive can be a tense time. Some mares foal early, while others seem to make everyone play the waiting game. Most births go quickly and smoothly. But things can go wrong, so just in case, foal monitors are checked frequently, or nights are spent on camp cots or bales of straw so someone will be close by if a foal arrives. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief when the baby safely makes its entrance and takes its first drink of milk.
In most cases, all is well and the foal thrives and grows. But there are a few things that can go wrong shortly after foaling. Even if a foal appears healthy and strong, the monitoring and vigilance are not over. Most problems can be treated if looked after quickly. A foalís immune system is immature, and resistance to bacteria and disease is quite low.
If a foal is born prematurely the problems that plague full term foals can multiply. The average length of a horse pregnancy is 320 to 365 days. Generally, a foal that is born before day 300 is considered premature. This varies though, since an individual mare may have a unique gestational period. At any rate, it wasnít that long ago that premature foals had a poor chance of survival. Foals that are born prematurely arenít ready for life outside. Their organs and systems arenít mature enough to support themselves. They may develop physical deformities because their bones and soft tissues arenít strong. They have problems staying warm. They have no body fat and may suffer from low blood sugar. This is compounded if they arenít strong enough to nurse. They are prone to respiratory infections. Overall, they are just more fragile than a full-term foal so it takes a lot of care to ensure they survive.
Failure of Passive Transfer
On the inside, a foal is protected from viruses and bacteria that might make it ill. But, itís born without a fully functioning immune system. Getting the first milk, called colostrum is essential for a foal, as this carries immune building antibodies. If a foal doesnít get this first milk, itís susceptible to infection. If the mare has been leaking milk prior to foal she might not have enough colostrum. If the foal is weak, it may not nurse enough in the first hours of life. So if itís suspected that a foal might not have got colostrum, it should be tested and treated with either colostrum or supplemental plasma.
Neonatal Encephalopathy is more commonly known as dummy foal syndrome. It crops up within about 36 hours of birth. For some reason, there is hemorrhaging and swelling in the brain leading to low blood oxygen, and fluctuating blood pressure. Foals become unable to nurse, are sleepy, may wander, or seem agitated. Some may suffer seizures. Without prompt treatment to stabilize the symptoms, the foal can die.
Foal diarrhea is really common. That doesnít mean it can be taken lightly though. Even before the obvious symptom appears, The first sign there is a problem is the foalís mother has a full udder. This means the foal isnít nursing. Within a short time, the foal will appear weaker and diarrhea will start. If treatment isnít started within a few hours, the foal can die of dehydration.
This is a disease of the airways, more simply called pneumonia. This can affect foals from newborn up to about six months. Getting enough colostrum is essential for building a foalís immunity so it can fight this virus.
With an incomplete immune system, bacterial infections are the primary killer of young foals. Good hygiene includes cleaning the umbilicus until completely healed and keeping the foaling stall clean.
The first poop a foal has is called the meconium. Itís dark green and is the remains of what the foal ingested while still inside the mare. Sometimes the foal will appear to be straining to poop, may not nurse and appear uncomfortable. And of course, there will be no tell-tale signs that the foal has passed the meconium in the stall bedding. Often an enema will solve the problem, but occasionally, they may need fluids and other treatment.
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