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Life Stages of Foals

By: Karen Briggs

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If you're a first-time breeder, you may be awaiting the birth of your mare's foal with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. While the vast majority of equine deliveries are uncomplicated, and most foals have a normal, healthy introduction to life, there's always the slight chance that not everything will go according to nature's plan.

According to a study from Texas A&M University, most foal deaths and diseases occur in the critical first week of life. A foal is at his most vulnerable when he first leaves the sheltered environment of the womb and enters the outside world where microorganisms are clustered on every surface and in the air he breathes.

Premature Birth

Premature birth – the arrival before the 320-day mark – also has a big impact on a foal's prospects. Foals who are pushed out into the world even a week early have difficulty adapting to life outside the uterus. Such a baby is usually abnormally small, has a very thin, silky hair coat, soft cartilage, rubbery hooves, and unusual weakness – sometimes he's so weak he is unable to stand and nurse.

Often, the internal organs will be immature as well, leaving a preemie vulnerable to disorders ranging from respiratory distress to poor thermoregulation, which is the ability to maintain the internal body temperature. Angular and flexural limb deformities are common, too. And because a premature newborn has little in the way of fat stores, he is susceptible to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), a condition that can take him from bright and alert to weak and fading in a matter of hours.

Some preemies have such underdeveloped gastrointestinal tracts that they're unable to digest milk. To provide them with the glucose they need, without triggering bloating and colic, they must be fed intravenously.

The good news is that veterinary science has come a long way in the past 15 years. Many major universities now have equine neonatal units where the success rates tend to be 65 percent or better, and even foals born prior to day 300 of gestation have been reported to survive with aggressive intensive care.

Birth

At a normal birth the foal should:

  • Seem bright and alert to his surroundings

  • Assume a sternal position within 15 minutes with his head upright, resting on his chest

  • Attempt to rise within 30 minutes of birth

  • Stand and nurse within two to three hours after birth

  • Pass meconium – the first sticky, dark manure – within 12 hours. Some foals become constipated and may need an enema to help them along

  • Have a heart rate of more than 60 beats per minute, which will increase after an hour or so

  • Have a respiration rate of 60 to 80 breaths per minute just after birth and level out to 30 to 40 breaths per minute after an hour

    Though a foal's immune system is intact at birth, it needs the jump-start of his dam's colostrum – the antibody-rich milk mares produce in the first 12 to 24 hours after birth – to begin providing him with protection from disease. If he doesn't get that infusion of immunoglobulins in the crucial timeframe in which he can absorb them, a condition called failure of passive transfer or FPT, a newborn foal is at high risk of infection or disease from practically every pathogenic microorganism in his environment.

    Failure of passive transfer isn't the only risk factor that can predispose a neonatal foal to health problems. A difficult delivery, an induced birth, placentitis, twinning, a mother with a history of uterine infections or other forms of troubled pregnancy ... any of these can directly affect the health of the newborn foal.

    Sometimes a mare will reject her foal, appearing afraid or even aggressive toward the offspring. Rejection should be treated immediately by finding the cause such as swollen udder or mastitis. Mild restraints or tranquilizers may be necessary in the beginning, but make sure pain is not inflicted on the mare while the foal nurses; the mare may associate the foal with pain.

    The First Days

    Knowing what should be happening in the first few weeks of your foal's life is an excellent way to help you spot when something is amiss. Here's a basic timeline for a healthy foal. In the first two days:

  • The foal will nurse several times an hour, essentially keeping his dam's udder drained. A full, hot udder means the foal is not nursing properly.

  • The foal will lie down frequently for short naps, with a respiration rate of 30 to 40 breaths per minute.

  • He will urinate and pass manure frequently in small amounts. Most foals urinate immediately after standing up from a nap.

  • Many foals begin life with weak, crooked legs, so don't be too concerned if he is "down" in his pasterns or fetlocks for the first day or two. But consult your veterinarian if it doesn't self-correct in about 2 months.

  • A foal's serum antibody levels should be providing him with full immunity by now, and they can be tested by your veterinarian within the first 18 to 24 hours of life.

  • His heart rate should level out at 80 to 120 beats per minute.

  • Heart murmurs are sometimes heard in the first two days of life but should be gone before the fourth day.

  • Temperature should be between 99 and 102 degrees. Temperatures higher or lower than this by even two-tenths of a degree may indicate trouble.

  • Depression, weakness, or evidence of residual milk on the foal's face are signs the foal is not thriving. Consult your vet if this occurs.

    The First Weeks

  • The foal may begin to show an interest in feed by nibbling and sampling what his dam eats.

  • The foal will eat fresh manure (usually his dam's), a practice called coprophagy. This may sound repulsive, but it serves a useful purpose, populating his gut with the helpful bacteria he'll need to digest fiber as he switches over to solid food.

  • The foal will become increasingly adventurous and independent of his dam.

  • Most foals develop diarrhea called scours 7 to 12 days after birth, most likely as a natural reaction to the changes in the digestive tract as he matures. Normal foal scours create soft-to-watery manure, which is not profuse. The symptoms should disappear after a few days.

    Indicators of Health Problems

    As you watch your foal develop be alert for symptoms listed below, which could indicate health problems:

  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite (full udder on the dam, "milk nose" on the foal)
  • Weakness
  • Labored breathing
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than a couple of days
  • Fever. It's a good idea to take your foal's temperature daily.
  • Swelling at the umbilical stump or around the genitals
  • Pale mucous membranes
  • Disorientation
  • Nasal discharge
  • Coughing
  • Inability to swallow
  • Sluggish reflexes
  • Decreased urination, or urine leaking from the navel stump

    The health status of a foal can change in the blink of an eye, so it's essential that you stay alert to these signs, especially in the first week of life. Often by the time an owner notices symptoms the disease process may already be well under way. If you notice something is not quite right, don't hesitate to call your veterinarian. Most would rather be called for a false alarm than for a health crisis that has been going on too long and may have entered a critical stage.

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