Equine Neonatal Care

Sep 08, 2014
Preventative/Preparedness breeding and foaling | neonatal care

When it comes to sick newborn foals, a few hours can be the difference between a good and a bad outcome. Foals are born with no immunity to disease as the maternal antibodies are unable to cross the placental barrier.

Foals obtain their immunity for the first 3-6 months of life by ingesting colostrums (dam’s first milk). If this fails to happen within the first 12-18 hours of life, the foal will succumb to infection unless it is given a plasma transfusion.

Some foals are born weak or depressed and are unable to ingest enough colostrum. In other cases, the mare failed to produce adequate colostrums, or the colostrum was leaked out in the weeks preceding the foaling.

It is extremely important to verify that the foal has obtained all the antibodies it needs through colostrums (passive transfer of immunity). In a foal that was delivered with no complications, this is generally done with a simple stall-side blood test by a Veterinarian at 18-24 hours of life.

Foals that have not had a normal delivery or fail to act normally after delivery should be evaluated by a Veterinarian immediately. The most important events in the immediate post-foaling period are the following:

  1. strong suckling reflex immediately
  2. standing within 1 hour
  3. nursing within 2 hours
  4. maternal passage of the placenta within 3 hours

If any of these are delayed, a Veterinarian should be consulted immediately.

Another dangerous and common condition is commonly referred to as dummy foal syndrome (Neonatal asphyxia syndrome or Neonatal ischemic encephalopathy). These foals suffered from a lack of oxygen during the process of parturition and experience serious, but temporary behavioral and metabolic abnormalities during the first days to weeks of life.

These patients have a favorable prognosis if managed in the intensive care unit where they can be fed every 1-2 hours though a nasogastric tube until they are able to eat on their own. There are many other potential complications associated with this syndrome such as meconium impactions and renal insufficiency. These are best managed in an intensive care setting.

Neonatal sepsis is a bloodborne infection and is one of the leading causes of death in early foalhood. Foals that did not receive adequate colostral antibodies are at increased risk, but normal foals can develop this too.

Infection within the uterus (placentitis), pneumonia, colitis, and umbilical infections are the most common sources of infection. Once bacteria reach the bloodstream they can disseminate and cause infection anywhere in the body.

The most devastating infections eventually infect the joints; this often results in death or permanent lameness. Untreated foals with sepsis have a grave prognosis. Early, aggressive treatment can save most of these foals, but immediate intervention is key to a successful outcome.

These three conditions are the most common, but are only a small portion of the list of neonatal diseases that require intensive care and/or surgery. Neonatal Isoerythrolysis, bladder ruptures, congenital inguinal hernias, meconium impaction, enteritis/colitis, umbilical abscessation, severe flexural limb deformities and severe angular limb deformities are also common and require rapid intervention to ensure a good chance of survival.

Meddleton Equine is staffed and equipped to treat all sick foals. The hospital has large stalls to accommodate a mare and its foal comfortably. The ICU unit is equipped with oxygen and IV fluid setup allowing for 24 hour a day respiratory support and cardiovascular resuscitation of the sickest foals. There is an on site laboratory which makes it possible to accurately monitor these rapidly changing cases. Access to immediate surgery enables rapid correction of conditions such as ruptured bladders or strangulating hernias.

Dr. Mark Meddleton, DVM

Written by Mark Meddleton, DVM

Dr. Meddleton is a 1991 graduate of Cornell University and completed a Medical & Surgical Internship at the University of Minnesota. He is a member of the American Veterinary Chiropractic Assoc., has been performing Chiropractic since 1994, and has extensively studied Equine Dentistry. He spent 4 years in a large performance horse practice in the Albany/Saratoga region of NY and moved to NM in 1996.