Assessing the Newborn Foal

Just what is a veterinarian looking for when he or she assesses a newborn foal, and what should horse-owners be watching for?

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By: Teresa Pitman |

The mare seemed a little uncomfortable with this new experience, but by feeding her handfuls of oats we persuaded her to stand still while her foal filled up on colostrum, and she soon relaxed.

While everything looked good, we decided to call our veterinarian for a quick check-up. He was able to reassure us that our new addition was healthy and doing well. But just what is a veterinarian looking for when he or she assesses a newborn colt or filly, and what should horse-owners be watching for?

Prepartum observations

Dr. Fernando J. Marqués, a board-certified internal medicine specialist and professor with the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, says that assessing the foal actually starts well before the birth. “You want to be taking good care of the mare and checking on her daily. If you wait until the foal is delivered, you may find there are problems that could have been avoided,” he points out.

For example, any vaginal discharge from the mare is considered abnormal and could be a sign of infection. It’s also important to look at the mare’s udder, in case she is leaking colostrum (the first milk mares produce, which is packed with antibodies – see page 28). “Because foals are born without antibodies, they rely on the colostrum to protect them against infections and disease. The mare only produces this special milk once, so if she starts leaking before the foal is born, it might be all gone before the foal arrives,” explains Marqués.

If you do notice dripping colostrum, you may be able to make arrangements to get colostrum from donor mares, or have the foal given plasma after it is 24 hours old if colostrum was not available.

The normal birth

Ideally, says Marqués, someone should be present for the birth. Mares do seem to do all they can to thwart this, he admits, often by foaling at night. A normal birth begins with white membranes and amniotic fluid emerging, then both front feet (soles facing down) and the muzzle of the foal. If instead of white membranes you see a red membrane, that means the placenta has detached and that membrane should be ruptured as soon as possible (cut it with scissors, says Marqués), so the foal can get oxygen from the air.

Some congenital malformations can prevent the foal from being born in the normal position. If the foal’s position is different than the usual one, or if the birth seems to be taking longer than about 30 minutes, Marqués says that a veterinarian should be contacted right away. Fortunately, most of the time the birth goes smoothly, and mares generally do better if they are given some space.

Postpartum checklist

Expect the foal to be noticeably breathing on his own within seconds of being born. His heart rate should be about 70-80 beats per minute. A large foal may compress the umbilical cord as it comes through the pelvis, and have trouble getting started with breathing.

Marqués applies the “one, two, three” rule:

• By one hour after birth, the foal should be standing up

• By two hours after birth, the foal should be nursing

• By three hours after the birth, the mare should have passed the placenta

“If any of these are delayed, there may be problems, and a veterinarian should be called,” he says.

The foal, when standing, should have a normal posture with head and neck up. And while the foal may not nurse immediately, the suckling reflex should be noticeable within half an hour (you can try sticking a couple of fingers in his mouth to see how he reacts). No response? A veterinarian will check for possible neurological problems. Foals who have suffered from a lack of oxygen may seem unaware of their surroundings (“dummy foals”), but these effects can sometimes be reversed.

In assessing a foal, Marqués takes its temperature (ideally 37-38°C) and will also check the foal’s mucus membranes, which should be pink and moist (bright red gums, depression or very high heart and respiratory rates may indicate the foal is septic due to a failure of passive transfer of immunity via the colostrum). The foal’s legs will be palpated and should feel warm, not cold, and he looks as well for contracted tendons which can prevent the foal’s legs from being straightened. The eyes are checked for corneal ulcers and possible infections; Marqués also examines the foal’s ribs, as sometimes these are fractured during a difficult birth.

The umbilical cord should be left intact as long as possible to maximize the transfer of blood from the mare to the foal, Marqués advises. There is a distinct area on the cord designed to break naturally, and this usually happens when the mare stands up. Once it ruptures, you can disinfect the remaining stump with dilute chlorhexidine in a small cup, held against the stump for a minute or two. Repeat this once or twice a day for the next few days, and you should see it drying up fairly quickly. Watch for bleeding, pus, swelling on the umbilical stump, or urine dripping from it. “The umbilicus is a major port of entry for bacteria,” explains Marqués, “so it’s important to disinfect it and to be watching for any signs of potential problems.”

It’s common at many breeding farms to give the foals an enema soon after birth to prevent meconium impaction. Meconium is the stool that forms in the foal’s intestines before birth, and it can be quite thick and dry. Fortunately, colostrum acts as a laxative and a foal who is nursing well will usually pass the meconium on his own, but sometimes there are difficulties. (In some cases the foal passes the meconium prior to birth; if its coat is stained, it may have inhaled some contaminated amniotic fluid and may be at risk for respiratory infection.)

If you do use the enema approach, Marqués recommends not giving more than two. “I see many foals where the rectum is very irritated by repeated enemas, and this can actually cause more obstruction problems. Also, repeated enemas can lead to severe electrolyte imbalances. There is also a risk of perforating the rectum if the enema is not given correctly.”

Marqués also watches for normal signs of bonding and connection between mare and foal. She should seem interested in her baby and receptive to the foal nursing, something that may take a little time if it’s her first.