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Feeding the Orphan Foal

By: Dr. Mary Rose Paradis

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Hand raising a foal can be done either with bottle or bucket feeding. Bottle feeding may be the easiest at the beginning because it is more natural for the foal to adapt his sucking reflex. Ultimately it is better to teach the foal to drink from a bucket because bucket feeding is a less labor intensive method of feeding the foal than bottle feeding. Bucket feeding also minimizes bonding to humans. This may at first glance seem to be a disadvantage but if the foal bonds to the caretaker rather than other horses, he may develop undesirable behaviors.

Behaviors in the foal may be cute, but dangerous in the adult. Foals can be taught to bucket feed by repeatedly, gently dipping their muzzle into a bowl of warm milk replacer. Alternatively, if the foal has a good suckle response, you can lead his head down to the milk as he suckles on your finger. Patience is definitely a virtue in this endeavor. It may take several hours to teach the foal where the milk is. Most foals will catch onto drinking from a bucket within 12 hours and not eat the required amount for the first 24 hours. This is not a problem as long as the foal is older than 1 week of age. Foals less than a few days old do not have the energy stores to go more than a few hours without food. Your veterinarian should be available to tube feed a reluctant newborn.

Feeding Schedule

The feeding schedule for foals will decrease, as the foal becomes older. The normal newborn nursing foal will nurse between 5 to 7 times per hour for short periods of time. It is difficult to mimic this type of feeding schedule in the orphan foal. Healthy foals can tolerate large deviations in this normal schedule.

For the first week of life, foals should be offered food every 1 to 2 hours. The frequency can be decreased and the volume increased as the foal gets older.

Generally by the time the foal is 4 weeks old you can decrease the frequency of feeding to 4 times a day. It is important to remember to keep the bucket clean. If the foal does not finish the milk offered, the left over milk should be discarded and fresh milk offered.

Mare's milk is obviously the best nutritional option for a foal. Unfortunately it is not readily available for the orphan foal except in the nurse mare option. Other species milk, such as cow or goat milk, have been used to feed foals even though they have a different composition. Varied results in growth have been reported in the use of other species milk.

Various commercial formulas are available to feed foals. Again the commercial feeds do not exactly mimic the components of mare's milk. They are often higher in electrolytes and minerals. Because foals less than 3 weeks of age have lactase as the predominant enzyme for digesting the milk sugar lactose, the milk replacer used in this age foal should not contain maltodextrans, corn syrup or glucose polymers which require maltase for digestion. Each product has its own mixing instructions, which can vary a lot.

Often manufacturers will recommend 1 part powder to 4 parts water, which yields a 20 percent dry matter solution. Normal mare's milk is less concentrated at 10 percent dry matter. This can create a digestive problem with an osmotic diarrhea. If diarrhea occurs one should dilute the formula to a 10 percent solution.

Generally the normal nursing foal will eat 25 to 30 percent of his body weight per day. For the 100 pound foal this works out to 25 to 30 pounds or 12.5 to 15 quarts of milk replacer. The total amount is divided by the number of feedings to determine the amount of milk that should be offered at feeding. This gives you a ball park amount that the foal should be eating but feeding the foal free choice is probably the best. The foal can eat as much as he needs.

Hay and grain should be available for the foal from an early age. Normal foals pick at the dam's food as early as the first week of life. Solid food does not provide adequate nutrition to the foal until he is about 2 to 3 months of age. Milk pellets can be added to the grain to ensure adequate nutrition. Foals can be weaned off the milk replacer around 3 to 4 months of age.

Monitor your foal's weight and growth on a weekly basis. If you have a scale, your foal should gain 2 pounds a day. If you don't have a scale then you can use a weight tape. A weight tape will not give you an accurate weight on your foal but it will allow you to monitor an increase in size and weight. Foals should have a flat back. Their ribs should be easily felt but not visible. The withers should be rounded and the neck and shoulders should blend well into the body. If the foal's backbone, ribs or pelvis are visible, the foal is too thin. You should check with your veterinarian to determine if there is a medical or nutritional problem.

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