Experts address keys to the foaling examination

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Jan 01, 2007


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Part one of this two-part series on foaling discussed the initial neonatal exam and the importance of monitoring the foal's suckling ability. Part two continues the discussion with a look at monitoring the foal's health in the hours, days and weeks after birth.

Before beginning the systematic exam, consider the effects of the birthing process on the foal, suggests Laurie Metcalfe, DVM, Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky. Was it a normal foaling? Did the mare have any abnormalities? Were there any signs of prematurity or dismaturity?

"In central Kentucky, it is precisely known when the mare was bred, so we know whether a foal is on time or early," says Metcalfe. Some foals are dismature in-utero. They still have fine hair coat, but may show tendencies toward sepsis and other issues of prematurity. Any issues of dismaturity as well as any congenital abnormalities should be noted. For example, the foal might be bright and alert but unable to get up because its tendons are still contracted.

Consider the posture of the foal. Is it lying laterally? Sternal recumbency is critical in newborn foals especially if they have any respiratory issues. The gait of newborn foals should be hypermetric with a base-wide stance. "The Merck Veterinary Manual" states: "Extreme hypermetria of the forelimbs, usually bilateral but occasionally unilateral, has been observed in some foals associated with perinatal hypoxic/ischemic insults, but this gait abnormality usually resolves without specific therapy within a few days. Spinal reflexes tend to be exaggerated. Foals also exhibit an exaggerated response to external stimuli (e.g., noise, sudden visual changes, touch) for the first few weeks of life."

"Once I realize that a foal is bright and alert and not having any immediate issues, I will go over them by body system," Metcalfe says. First, monitor the heart. A continuous PDA (patent ductus arteriosus) "washing machine" murmur is normal for the first 72 hours, so that is of little concern. Listen to the lungs to make sure there is good air movement.

"I get a little more concerned about silent lungs than I do about harsh lungs. I like to make sure that its respiration is good. I get more concerned about slow respiration than I do about dyspnea."

It is important to have a systematic approach to the physical examination so all body systems are assessed. "I start at the head and look at its gums and eyes. Are they sunken? Are they dehydrated?" asks Katherine MacGillivray, VMD, Dipl. ACVIM, Hagyard Equine Medical Institute.

The GI tract should be functioning well. Foals should nurse several times per hour for brief periods. Often after the foal passes the initial meconium, it can be difficult to find the foal's manure in a large stall. Therefore, listening to intestinal sounds and monitoring the size/distention of the abdomen are important.

Colic in the foal can be due to several different conditions not all related to the intestinal tract. Common causes of colic include meconium impactions, rupture of the bladder and diarrhea. There also are rare congenital intestinal diseases in which little to no fecal matter is passed.

Check the umbilicus to ensure that no infection is brewing. Septicemia is blood-borne from bacterial infection via the mucosal membranes of the umbilicus, GI tract or respiratory tissues, and might localize in the foal's joints. Some infections develop in-utero from passage across the placenta and are present at birth. Clinical signs might be subtle at first and progress quickly, leaving the foal quite sick. Symptoms include depression, inability to nurse, diarrhea and excessive sleeping. The infection commonly presents as hot, enlarged joints.

Once the circulatory, respiratory and GI systems are checked, Metcalfe performs a methodical examination of the musculoskeletal system. Evaluating the ribs and joints is especially important.

"It is important to check for fractured ribs because we see a fair number of those, some from people intervening during the foaling process," MacGillivray says.