The New Foal – What Every Mare Owner Should Know About Neonatal Foals and Foaling

A certain amount of preparation on the part of the mare owner will greatly increase the likelihood of a positive outcome at foaling time.   There are certain steps which must be taken in order to help produce a healthy foal.  It is also important for the mare owner to recognize when something is going wrong and when it is time to contact a veterinarian.

Preparation:  It is very important that the mare receive the appropriate vaccinations during pregnancy.  She should be vaccinated against equine herpesvirus (EHV-1) at months five, seven and nine of gestation.  She should receive prefoaling vaccinations thirty days prior to foaling.  This helps assure that the mare will produce colostrum with good antibody levels against the pathogens of concern.   Prefoaling vaccinations should include influenza, rhinovirus, eastern and western equine encephalitis, tetanus and West Nile virus.  In some cases, it may also be appropriate to vaccinate against  strangles, rabies, Potomac horse fever, rotavirus or botulism.  Thirty days prior to foaling is also the time to open the Caslick’s, if present.  Should you wish to screen for neonatal isoerythrolysis, this test should be performed two weeks prior to the foaling date.

Monitoring:  During the last trimester of pregnancy, the mare should be observed closely for signs of premature mammary gland enlargement, dripping of milk, or discharge from the vulva.  These signs could indicate problems with the placenta or fetus.  If these signs are observed, you should contact your veterinarian.

Foaling:  Before the time of foaling, take some time to assemble a foaling kit.  This should include a stethoscope, thermometer, scissors, tail wrap, enema, umbilical tape, plenty of towels, bulb syringe, umbilical dip (0.5% chlorhexidine solution or 2% iodine), heat lamp and foal blanket.

Normal foaling is a rapid process.  Once the mare’s water breaks (rupture of the chorioallantois) the foal should be delivered within 20 to 30 minutes.  After the foal is born, a good rule of thumb is the 1-2-3 Rule: the foal should be standing within one hour of birth, and nursing within two hours of birth.  The placenta should be expelled within three hours of birth.

Problems: There are several potential problems which can occur at the time of foaling:

Premature placental separation, or “red bag”: this becomes evident at the time of  foaling when a velvety, red structure protrudes from the vulva prior to delivery of the foal.  It indicates that the foal and the entire placenta are being expelled simultaneously, and the foal is being deprived of its oxygen supply.  If observed, immediately cut the  placenta with scissors and attempt to gently pull the  foal.

Not breathing: breathing should start immediately after birth.  The heart rate is normally around 70 beats per minute.  If the foal is in respiratory or cardiac arrest, attempts at resuscitation should be initiated immediately.  The foal should receive 20 breaths per minute, using a foal resuscitator, or by closing the foal’s mouth and covering one nostril and expanding the chest by breathing into the other nostril.  Prior to initiating ventilations, the nostrils should be suctioned with a bulb syringe to remove excessive fluids.  If the heart is not beating, chest compressions should be performed at a rate of 80 to 120 per minute.  If available, epinephrine  may be administered to stimulate respiration.

Dystocia: If the foal is in an abnormal position for delivery, it may be necessary for a veterinarian to manually reposition the foal to allow delivery to occur.  Overzealous traction on the foal at this time does risk tearing of the uterus and possible death of the mare.  The veterinarian may elect to anesthetize the mare to stop uterine contractions and facilitate repositioning of the fetus.  If efforts to reposition the fetus are unsuccessful after 20 minutes, a Cesarean section (C-section) should be performed to deliver the foal.  Time is of the essence when dealing with a dystocia, since the life of both the foal and the mare depend on rapid action.

Retained placenta: If the mare fails to expel the placenta within three hours of delivering the foal, the placenta is considered to be retained.  A veterinarian should take steps to properly remove the placenta and determine that it has been removed in its entirety.  Failure to remove the placenta in a timely manner can result in laminitis or the death of the mare.

Caring for the New Foal:

  • The umbilicus (naval) of the foal should be dipped in 0.5 % chlorhexidine solution or 2% iodine immediately after birth and two to three times daily for the first two to three days of life.  Strong iodine should not be used.  If the umbilicus becomes enlarged, or  drips urine, a veterinarian should examine the foal.
  • Very commonly, an enema is administered to the foal within the first few hours of life to assist in the passage of the meconium.  No more than two enemas should be administered without contacting your veterinarian.
  • IgG Testing is a very important step in the evaluation of the new foal.  This test is performed 8 to 24 hours after birth, and assesses the antibody levels in the new foal.  It is these antibodies, absorbed from the colostrum, which protect the foal from pathogens during the first weeks of life.  Failure of passive transfer is a common contributing factor in neonatal septicemia.  If failure of passive transfer is identified, steps can be taken to correct this problem.
  • A veterinarian should examine the foal within a few hours of birth.

Red Flags: These signs could indicate a serious problem in the new foal.

  • Weakness or lethargy
  • Behavior changes, or abnormal behavior, such as wandering aimlessly.
  • Colic
  • Diarrhea
  • Swollen joints
  • Enlarged umbilicus, or drainage of fluid from the umbilicus
  • Sunken eyes
  • Rapid respiration
  • Milk draining from nostrils, or milk on face
  • Abnormal gum coloration (yellow or dark red)
  • Orange fluid draining from nostrils
  • Limb deformities

If any of these problems are observed, a veterinarian should be contacted immediately.

Dr. Lombardo is an equine veterinarian based in Red Wing, Minnesota.  He may be contacted at Dr.Lombardo@EquusDVM.com or telephone (651) 755–6515.

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