Foaling: The fight for immunity

Foaling: The fight for immunity

Dec 01, 2006

Because foals are often born within the early hours of the morning, farm personnel need to be observant and call if the necessity arises. In some circumstances, soon after parturition, an emergency arises. In other situations, the newborn foal looks okay, and then shows signs of illness within a few hours or days.

This article takes a comprehensive look at the science and art of foaling.

"I usually start doing my neonatal exam within the first moments after birth, even before they get up," says Laurie Metcalfe, DVM, Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital. "If not that soon, we might get a call in the morning if the foal has been born overnight, so the exam might be within six hours or so. By that time the foal might have had a chance to stand and nurse. If I'm there at the birthing, I will examine them right away."

If seen close after birth, their overall appearance is important, its behavior is even more critical, as signs of illness usually are in the way it acts during the first few hours of life. Early observation is key, experts say.

"It is important to watch them to see if they are giving you any clues that something may be wrong," Metcalfe explains. Can they right themselves, are they strong, making attempts to get up. Do they have a suckle reflex?

"You kind of get a feel if they are acting right or not," Metcalfe notes. "It comes with experience. One of the most important things that I have learned is that catching things early is critical." So is referring early. "Some of these foals that have had a hypoxic insult during birth might look fine at 12 hours to 24 hours, but at 36 hours they'll turn into 'dummy' foals. If you begin to recognize that earlier, and have them on antibiotics, and have someone monitoring them closely, it can make a world of difference."

It is important to watch the foal's mentation to see if they look bright and alert. You can look at a foal and notice that it is not aware of its surroundings. They might periodically fade in and out of awareness. They may go off to a corner of the stall and not know where the mare is. That is a concern. "The foal should constantly be at the teat. If it periodically wanders off, and is disinterested in nursing that alarms me," Metcalfe cautions.

Much needs to occur within the first two to three hours. They should immediately recognize the mare and begin to bond with her. They need to have the suckle reflex and want to nurse. You want them to suckle even before they are getting up. "I like to see them attempt to get up during the first half an hour," Metcalfe adds.

Right after birth, the newborn foal should have a heart rate greater than 60 beats per minute. Foals should spontaneously begin to breath although some will need tactile stimulation to wake up. In the first 30 seconds after the foal is born, the foal will take gasping breaths. The normal respiratory rate during the first five minutes is 40 to 60 breaths per minute. Once the foal is three hours old, its respiratory rate lowers to 30 to 40 breaths per minute with minimal breathing effort. The foal's heart rate will increase to around 100-130 beats per minute.

"It should all be just happening," says Katherine MacGillivray, VMD, Dipl. ACVIM, Hagyard Equine Medical Institute. "If you don't see the normal sequence of foal activities and behaviors after birth, there is concern regarding the foal's well being." They should usually stand within the first hour, and often suckle the air or straw prior to actually latching onto the mare. Foals should nurse from the mare within two to three hours of birth. At times foals are unable to coordinate both standing and nursing without minimal assistance. During the normal sequence, soon after they first fill their stomach, they will pass the meconium, the first feces. Ideally, a foal passes meconium within eight hours.

The foal that demonstrates normal nursing behavior soon after birth can still have changes in mentation, nursing behavior and overall comfort several hours after birth.

There are several reasons a foal may not be nursing. Is it colicky? Is the animal straining to defecate and pass meconium? Straining to urinate? A foal may attempt to nurse repeatedly, not because it is hungry, but because it does not know what else to do.