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Foals: The First Hours of Life

By: Dr. Mary Rose Paradis

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Immediately after parturition (birth) the mare turns and sees the foal. One of the first behaviors that you may notice is a soft nickering that is reserved for her foal. Soon the dam will sniff and lick the fetal membranes and the foal. It is thought that this behavior helps the mare to discriminate between her foal and others. The first half hour after birth is probably the most important time to establish this bond, although foals may not bond to their mothers for several days. If the foal appears normal on your Apgar test, then it is important to give mare and foal this time to become acquainted.

Normal foal behavior during the first three hours after birth should follow the guidelines listed below. The adaptive response is followed by the time elapsed since birth.

Normal respiratory and cardiac rhythms: Within 1 minute
Righting reflexes established: Within 5 minutes
Suck reflex established: Within 5 minutes
Attempts to stand: Within 30 minutes
Ability to stand unassisted: Within 60 to 120 minutes
Nursing from udder: Within 60 to 180 minutes

These guidelines are fairly strict. Failure to meet them may be the first indication that there is something medically wrong with the neonate and a veterinarian should be consulted immediately.

The most important observation concerns suckling. A foal will try to nurse on many parts of the mare before finding the udder. It is important that you actually see the foal attach to the udder and wrap her tongue around the teat. Sometimes the foal is actually sucking on the inner thigh of the mare or other parts of the udder but not the teat, so it important to watch closely, and see that the foal is swallowing milk. During the first week of life, foals nurse at a frequency of approximately four to five times each hour. The average length of time of nursing is one minute. This may range from a few seconds to several minutes.

If the foal is attempting to suckle more frequently, you should suspect that the mare may not be producing enough milk, as the foal's hunger may not be satisfied. If the mare's udder seems enlarged and milk is dripping without stimulation from the foal, it may mean that the foal is not eating enough. This may be an early sign of depression and illness in the foal. Your veterinarian should be consulted immediately.

If there is any question about the success of the foal to suckle enough colostrum, your veterinarian should be consulted. In most cases, the veterinarian will want to draw blood to see if colostrum was absorbed. The test can be performed between 12 and 24 hours after birth.

The foal will generally defecate for the first time about 30 minutes after nursing. The first manure that the foal passes is called meconium and is made up of cellular debris and amniotic fluid that has been ingested over pregnancy. It generally consists of dark brown hard balls. Sometimes the newborn foal will have difficulty passing his meconium, called meconium impaction. The foal may posture and strain to defecate with his back arched (humped). The foal's first urination occurs between three to five hours after birth. Sometimes owners confuse the signs of straining to defecate (arching the back) with the signs of straining to urinate (lowering the back).

Foals are fast learners. In the wild they need to be able to run from predators as quickly as possible after birth. The foal becomes steady on his feet about 4 to 5 hours after birth. He should be able to lie down, stand and nurse with ease. Mares and their foals can be turned out into a small paddock by themselves within the first 24 hours after birth. Mares should be very attentive of their foal's location at all times. Maternal protectiveness will cause the mare to try to place herself between her foal and anything that may threaten him. Foals should follow their mares. First the first few days of life the foals will stay within a 10-foot radius of the dams. As they become more secure with their environment they will widen the safety zone between themselves and their dams.

Foal Rejection

Sometimes a mare will reject her foal. The most common and least severe form of rejection usually involves mares that are having their first foal. These mares appear to be afraid of their foals and the behavior is one of avoidance and intolerance to nursing. The more severe forms involve actual aggression toward the foal. This may be a chronic problem that occurs with every foal.

Foal rejection should be treated immediately. Causes for pain such as a swollen udder or mastitis should be evaluated. Mild restraint of the mare is often sufficient to allow the foal a chance to nurse. A mild tranquilizer may be needed in the beginning. Do not inflict pain on the mare while the foal is nursing because she may associate the pain with the foal. If the mare is actually aggressive toward the foal then the pair should be watched very carefully. The mare should be milked out and the foal fed the colostrum (antibody rich milk) if there is any suspicion that the foal has not ingested enough milk.

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