Larry Catt, D.V.M.
Larry G. Martin, D.V.M.

24 Hour Emergency
El Cajon (619) 590-1991
Ramona (760) 789-6845

What Is a High-Risk Foal?

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A “high risk” foal is one that has increased potential for developing a problem after birth. Foals in one or more of the following categories should be considered at risk:

  • foals from mares which have a history of abortion.
  • foals from mares which have a history of producing weak or sick foals.
  • foals from mares which have a history of illness of any type during their pregnancy, especially if they have been exposed to infectious diseases or have required and anesthetic procedure.
  • foals from mares with a history of chronic uterine infections despite the fact that they are presently in foal.
  • foals from mares that have a history of no milk production, especially if this has occurred more than once.
  • foals from mares which have poor quality colostrum or no colostrum.
  • foals from mares which have premature lactation (dripping milk for several days prior to foaling).
  • foals from mares which are malnouished during their pregnancy.
  • foals which survive a difficult birth (dystocia).
  • foals born by cesarean section.
  • foals which are unable to nurse and do not receive colostrum for any reason.
  • foals housed in an unsanitary environment regardless of the mare’s health and the fact that the foal received colostrum.

This is a partial list of some of the situations that may place a foal in a high-risk category. There are many specific causes of the above situation; for instance, allowing the mare to graze infected fescue pastures after 300 days of gestation is a common cause of failure to produce colostrum and milk (agalactia).

Foals fitting into one or more of these categories should be thoroughly examined by a veterinarian soon after birth and closely observed and monitored by the owner or farm manager for at least 10-14 days. Be on the alert for any of these early signs that a foal may be developing a problem:

  • Decrease in the frequency of nursing, as noted by frequent observation of the foal or evidence by a continuously full udder on the mare.
  • Decreased activity of the foal. The normal routine of a healthy foal is to nurse frequently, play actively for a short period, investigate its surroundings and sleep. A foal which doesn’t become increasingly interested in its surroundings, doesn’t actively seek out the mare when hungry, acts lethargic, sleeps most of the time, has problems getting up after 24 hours of age or in any other way doesn’t follow the typical pattern of the normal foal may be developing a problem and should be examined further.
  • Gradual loss of the suck reflex (ability to nurse).
  • Increased periods of recumbency.
  • Any lameness with or without joint swelling. Do not dismiss lameness or a hot, swollen joint as due to “trauma” (mare stepped on the leg or something similar). Every lameness or swollen joint in the equine foal should be treated as infected until proven otherwise.
  • Persistent loose stools with depression and/or appetite loss.
  • Labored breathing, nasal discharge, coughing. When foals are sleeping, their breathing pattern may look irregular. This is normal in most foals. A very rapid respiratory rate, however, may indicate respiratory disease.
  • Intermittent or continuous dripping of urine from the umbilicus or navel.
  • A swollen umbilicus, discharge from the navel.

Equine Neonatal Diseases

Numerous diseases can affect the foal during the neonatal period. These range from congenital abnormalities (birth defects) to serious systemic infections (septicemia). However, in the early stages of many neonatal diseases, the clinical signs are subtle and similar. In order to achieve early detection it is important to know what is normal and to observe the foal frequently enough to be able to detect a deviation from normal. The highest rate of successful treatment of sick foals occurs when therapy is initiated early. Here are some things that can be done to achieve early detection of impending illness:

  • Identify high-risk foals before birth if possible.
  • Attend all foalings.
  • Perform routine post-partum veterinary examinations on all apparently normal foals at 24 hours of age. This examination should include testing for immunoglobulin (IgG) levels. Any foal that is in a high-risk category or that is not normal after birth should be examined by a veterinarian shortly after parturition.
  • Observe all foals closely at least two to three times per day for the first 10-14 days. This means that the mare and foal should be housed in an area that has easy access and that they should not be immediately turned out in a large pasture where they may not be seen frequently and where catching the mare is difficult. If you do not observe the foal, then you cannot detect a problem early.
  • Make an effort to learn how normal foals act if you do not already have experience in this area.
  • Horse owners invest a considerable amount of time, effort and money in breeding and maintaining mares in hope of obtaining and raising a foal which can be used for its intended purpose. To lose this foal after 11 months of effort because of poor planning represents a considerable loss. While not every sick foal can be saved, prevention and early detection increase the chance of a favorable outcome and decrease the cost of therapy.