Signs of a Healthy Foal

Chances are your foal will sail through the baby stage with flying colors, especially if it’s normal at birth and good management practices are in place at your farm. However, even under the best circumstances, it’s possible that your youngster could fall prey to one or more problems that can affect foals. How does a healthy newborn foal appear?

Healthy newborn foals should:

  • Assume a sternal position (be able to sit up on his chest) within minutes of delivery.
  • Breathe easily, slowing from an initial high of about 70 breaths per minute to 40 to 60 minutes within 15 minutes of birth.
  • Have red or at least pink mucous membranes, indicating adequate oxygen is reaching the tissues.
  • Display a strong suckle reflex within two to 20 minutes of birth.
  • Appear alert and display an affinity for the dam.
  • Be able to stand within two hours and nurse within three hours.

If your foal fails to meet these criteria, he may already be suffering from a serious condition and needs the prompt attention of a veterinarian. Good observation coupled with prompt action gives you the best opportunity to help your foal avoid a setback. 

Make every effort to maximize the chances of your foal’s continued good health. These good management practices can make the difference between a healthy foal and a sick one:

  • A well-ventilated, clean foaling environment.
  • Good farm and stable hygiene and parasite control.
  • Sound nutrition, current vaccinations and regular deworming of all equine residents.
  • Plenty of fresh air and room to exercise for the foal as well as commencement of a regular vaccination and deworming program.

Our Foal Health Watch Guide describes signs of a variety of common ailments that can occur during the first 6 months of a foal’s life. In most cases, even if the problem is not life-threatening, you will still want your veterinarian to confirm the diagnosis and direct you in the most effective treatment. Please keep in mind this guide lists signs that are frequently observed with certain foal disorders, but not all foals display the same signs or to the same degree. A foal’s condition can deteriorate very rapidly, so don’t wait until your sick baby shows all the signs before acting and calling your veterinarian.

Foal Health Watch Guide

FIRST SYMPTOMOTHER SYMPTOMSPROBABLE DIAGNOSISACTIONS
Labored, suppressed or noisy breathingSoreness, reluctance to moveBroken ribs due to severe compression from deliveryStall rest, gentle handling
 Reluctance to move or nurse, extended abdomenRuptured diaphragm, often due to birth traumaImmediate corrective surgery
 Yellow-stained amniotic fluid with deliveryMeconium-aspiration pneumoniaAntibiotics
 Depression, coughing, intermittent feverFoal pneumoniaAntibiotic treatment based on bacterial culture
Loose stoolsMild diarrhea at time of dam’s foal heatTransient, “9-day scours”Gently clean foal’s tail and buttocks with soapy water to prevent scalding of skin
 Dehydration, scalding of skin on buttocks, matting of tailNoninfectious diarrhea (from overeating, eating manure, etc.)Fluids, decreased rations, clean tail and buttocks as above
 Rapid dehydration, scalding, matting, fever, depressionInfectious diarrheaAntibiotics, fluids, clean tail and buttocks regularly
ColickyColic after ingesting first milk, enema ineffectiveClosed colon or rectum – development error causes gut to end in blind pouchSurgery, success depends on length of missing part
 Rolling, thrashing, lying on back, fecal matter not passedSevere constipation, fecal mass too large or too far forward for enema to be successfulLaxatives, fluids
 Lethargy, appetite loss, diarrhea, teeth grinding, lying on ground with feet in airUlcerConfirm with endoscopy, treat with anti-ulcer medication
Profuse watery discharge from eyesBlinking, avoidance of light, scratched corneaInversion of eyelid (entropion), dehydration, if uncorrected can lead to blindnessFluids, lubricate eye and lids gently, pull out eyelid as often as necessary, surgery may be needed
Navel stump dripping urineWet, soiled, warm, swollen navel stump“Leaky navel” (pervious urachus), umbilicus fails to closeDaily cauterization with silver nitrate or iodine, possible surgery
StrainingTail switching, meconium (first feces) not passedSimple constipation, meconium not passedEnema, fluids
 Distended abdomen, little or no urine produced, toxicity, fever, jaundiced membranes, progressive weaknessRuptured bladder due to birth trauma or jerk on umbilical cord after deliverySurgery to repair hole in bladder, drain urine from bladder, fluids
Low immunoglobulin (IgG) countLess than 400 mg/dlFailure of passive transfer, foal did not receive adequate colostrum or was unable to absorb IgGProvide colostrum if foal less than 24 hours old, otherwise administer plasma IgG transfusion
 Greater than 400 mg/dl, low risk environmentPartial failure of passive transferFoal probably adequately protected, but watch closely
 Less than 800 mg/dl, high risk environmentPartial failure of passive transferAdminister plasma IgG transfusion, monitor IgG level
Weakness, incoordinationDelivery between 300 and 320 days of gestation, low birthweight, little or no suckle strength, weak fetlocks and lax pasternsPremature birthOxygen, humidity and temperature control, tube feeding, fluids
 Intolerance to exerciseCongenital heart defectCardiovascular exam, surgery
 Will not nurse, severe diarrhea, dehydration, subnormal temperature, bluish-white third eyelid“Sleeper foal” caused by Actinobacillus equii bacteriaAntibiotics, fluids
 Inflammation of umbilical vein, fever, depression“Navel ill” (septicemia), systemic bloodstream infectionAntibiotics, fluids, intensive nursing care
Swollen jointsLameness, fever, depression, joints are hot and painfulJoint ill (septic arthritis) or bone infection (osteomyelitis)Antibiotics, surgical draining
Mare cannot nurseMare dies, does not allow foal to nurse, or is unable to provide milk (agalactiae)Orphan or rejected foal, agalactic mare, early weaningSupply colostrum is newborn, provide foal milk replacer or nurse mare

Feeding Foals During Weaning and Post Weaning – An Important Time Period for an Equine Athlete

Feeding Foals During WeaningProperly preparing the foals to be weaned can make the process much easier for everyone!

Keep in mind that weaning can be a high stress period for the foal. With that in mind, other high stress events should probably not take place at the same time as weaning.

The following management practices should be in place before the foal is weaned:

  1. Make certain that the foal is consuming at least 1 pound of a feed per month of age of a feed designed for foals and weanlings. If a foal is 4 months of age, it should be consuming at least 4 pounds of feed per day. If a foal is 6 months of age, it should be consuming at least 6 pounds of feed per day. Appropriate feeds will be 14-16% protein with controlled starch and sugar along with amino acid, mineral and vitamin fortification. Keep in mind that past 2 months of age, the milk produced by the dam is not sufficient to maintain adequate growth, so the foal should be creep fed if possible as not all mares allow the foal to eat with them. The day you wean the foal is NOT the day to change feeds! The foal should also have access to high quality forage, loose salt and fresh, clean water.
  2. Make certain that the foal has been vaccinated for appropriate diseases according to your health care plan. Vaccination is a stress on the animal, so you do not want to do this at the same time you wean the foal if that can be avoided.
  3. The foal should also be de-wormed prior to weaning.
  4. The foal should have been handled, taught to lead and have had its feet trimmed.

There are a number of ways to separate the foals from their mothers and many farms manage in different ways.

Monitor the new weanlings fairly closely and increase feed intake to maintain growth and body condition, feeding according to both weight and Body Condition Score. Some weanlings become a bit pot-bellied and look a little rough following weaning. This is frequently due to inadequate feed intake and too much forage.

The cecum is not fully developed in the weanling, so it cannot digest forage as efficiently as an older horse.  This limits nutrient availability and may limit growth and development.

Proper preparation can minimize the stress of weaning for foals and help maintain uniform growth and body condition. Uniform growth and maintaining target body condition is essential to reduce risk of certain types of Developmental Orthopedic Disease.

One of the things we want to avoid is letting the weanling get off normal growth rate, then deciding to push for rapid growth as a yearling to hit target for show or for scheduled sales.