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What to Do When Your Foal Fails to Thrive

A mare and her foal in a fieldAs horse owners we should all hope for the best and plan for the worst when it comes to our beloved horses. This saying rings particularly true as we welcome foals into our families this spring. If you've been tending to your broodmare and all her nutritional needs, chances are you will be greeted with a healthy foal that sails through the baby stages without problem. Unfortunately even with the best laid plans, problems may arise. So what should you do if your foal doesn't thrive?

Easy as 1-2-3

"A healthy newborn foal will be bright, alert, active and responsive," according to Dr. Kelly Kalf, DVM. A good broodmare will encourage their newborn foal to get up and nurse within an hour of birth. A basic rule of thumb to know if your foal is getting off to a healthy start is by following the 1-2-3 rule. Healthy foals should:

  1. Stand within one hour
  2. Start nursing within two hours
  3. Pass the first meconium (first feces) within 3 hours of birth

If your foal doesn't meet these key milestones you should contact your vet.

Reasons Your Foal Won't Thrive

There are many reasons why your foal may not be thriving as expected. The most common reason is Failure of Passive Transfer. "Inadequate consumption of colostrum or consumption of poor quality colostrum in the first 24 hours of life will cause either complete or partial failure of passive antibodies to the foal," explains Kalf. "The foal's immune system is naïve at birth and it depends on the transfer of antibodies in the mare's colostrums in order to thrive."

Neonatal infections may also occur. These infections typically come from the environment the foal lives in and enter the foal via umbilicus, GI tract or the respiratory tract. Navel (umbilical) infections are a significant health risk to newborn foals as the bacteria enters the foal's bloodstream through the umbilicus shortly after birth. "Infection risk is why it is important to dip the foal's umbilicus 1-2 times per day with 0.5% chlorhexidine solution or 2% iodine solution for 2-3 days after birth, or until the umbilical stump has dried," notes Kalf. "Once in the bloodstream, the bacteria can make the foal very sick, get septic joints, umbilical abscesses or widespread septicemia."

Intestinal parasites can also affect how your foal thrives. Dr. Justin Sobota, DVM says, "At our practice, we are advocates of Strategic Deworming and treat each horse and foal as an individual much as you would with a nutrition plan." However, there are some basic guidelines he suggests. "Provide oxibendazole at 6-8 weeks, submit a fecal sample at 14-16 weeks and provide pyrantel, deworm with oxibendazole again at 22-24 weeks, then submit another fecal sample at 30-32 weeks and give pyrantel again," advises Sobota. "When the foal is 38 weeks of age we then put them on an adult deworming schedule."

When to Call the Vet

The best way to help your foal avoid a setback is through good observation and prompt action when something appears to be amiss. The Foal Health Watch Guide describes common ailments that could affect your foal and what you should do. Remember, not all foals will act the same way when they don't feel good, much like a human baby. It's also important to know high risk foals may look normal for several hours after birth before exhibiting signs of distress.

All foals should be examined by the vet during their first 24 hours. This initial visit will help determine the health of your foal and alert you to any potential problems. However after this initial visit do not hesitate to call your veterinarian again if you have concerns about the health of your foal. "It is better to call sooner than later as foals can become ill quickly," emphasizes Sobota.

Visit your local Southern States location to stock up on foal supplies this spring.

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