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 – 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.
At a normal birth the foal should:
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 First Weeks
Indicators of Health Problems
As you watch your foal develop be alert for symptoms listed below, which could indicate health problems:
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.