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 Broodmares: Fall Check List for Broodmares – Verify Pregnancy & Plan for Next Year

Feeding BroodmaresOne of the most important development periods in the life of a foal is the last six months of gestation when the foal is developing in the uterus of the mare.

The importance of this period was recognized in the Nutrient Requirements of Horses, Sixth Edition, when the Committee established that the nutrient requirements of the mare start increasing at the sixth month of gestation.

Mares that foaled and were re-bred or were bred in the first four months of the calendar year may now be entering sixth month of gestation, so a fall check-up is an excellent idea.

The key elements of managing the pregnant mare are the following:

  1. Verify that all bred mares are pregnant. If there are open mares, now is the time to assess potential problems and prepare them for breeding the next season. If a mare was pregnant and has lost the pregnancy, now is the time to plan her program. If she needs to go under lights, that should happen about December 1. If Body Condition was an issue, now is the time to bring her up to desired score.
  2. Mares should be at about a body condition score 6 when they foal so that they have sufficient energy reserves for early lactation as well as to maintain condition for re-breeding. If they need to gain weight, now is an excellent time to gradually increase the energy intake of the diet so they will be in the desired body condition at foaling. If they are a bit too heavy, increased exercise or slight reduction in energy intake may be useful while still maintaining amino acid, vitamin and mineral intake for the developing foal. Drastic weight loss is NOT recommended!
  3. Lysine, methionine and threonine, the first three limiting essential amino acids, need to sufficient in the diet for placental and fetal development. Amino acids are more critical than crude protein.
  4. The mare needs to be receiving adequate calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, zinc, manganese and selenium to provide minerals for the development of the foal and to build the foals own trace mineral reserves. Trace minerals are also critical for immune support. A good vitamin program is also essential.
  5. A regular health care program should be developed in conjunction with a veterinarian so the mare is protected herself and can also produce antibodies to protect the foal when it nurses and receives the colostrum that contains maternal antibodies.

Good quality pasture or forage may provide sufficient energy thru late gestation, but is unlikely to provide adequate amino acids, vitamins and minerals. An appropriate ration balancer product may be used from month five to about month 10 or 11 of gestation to provide the missing nutrients. A feed designed for broodmares and foals can be introduced prior to foaling so that the mare is on the feed before she foals. This feed can then be increased after foaling to provide both the increased energy and the increased nutrients that are required for lactation, as well as providing nutrition for the foal when it starts to nibble on feed. Fresh clean water and free choice salt should also be available at all times.

Feeding the broodmare properly during gestation can help reduce the risk of developmental problems for the foal and help insure that the mare can be rebred in a timely manner to produce another foal the following year.