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Since newly-born foals are rather helpless, a foal that is unable to stay with its natural mother for any reason needs special care to ensure appropriate growth and development. Raising an orphaned foal to the age of a weanling is a challenge because of the feeding and socialization requirements to help the foal become a healthy, well-adjusted horse.
- Death of mare or serious complications during or after delivery
- Rejection by dam
- Removal from dam because of age, breeding status, or other complicating factors
Good horse management and knowledgeable horse selection may minimize the number of orphan foals, but the death of a dam, or having to remove a foal because of complications related to pregnancy and delivery, can not always be prevented.
A couple of options exist for dealing with an orphan foal. Of primary concern immediately following delivery is making sure that the foal receives alternative colostrum within the first six hours of life. Placement with a "nurse" foster mare that is in the early stages of lactation is the most satisfactory solution, but is not always possible. Another option is the use of frozen colostrum.
If the foal is not able to suckle shortly following delivery, colostrum should be administered via tubing.
Foals suckle intermittently and the feeding of the colostrum should occur approximately every hour. Having a veterinarian check the immunoglobulin status to determine if the proper IgG count of 1,000 to 1,300 is reached will provide information regarding transfer of immunity. Foals may require extra colostrum or, in some cases, plasma as a substitute.
When providing nourishment for the growing foal through placement with a nurse mare, care should be taken to ensure the mare's milk will meet the needs of the foal. The growth rate of the foal is dependent upon energy and protein intake, and if a good match is not made, skeletal and other problems related to healthy growth may develop.
Since mares produce higher levels of proteins, lipids, and lactose immediately after foaling, matching the foal with a mare that has been lactating for a long period of time may not be the best choice.
Using a milk replacer is another alternative for raising orphan foals. In the past, complications with digestion have been linked to milk replacers, but these problems have been resolved by the development of better formulas.
The amount of time and labor required of the handler when using milk replacers is a drawback. Since the digestive tract of a foal is simple and undeveloped, small quantities of milk need to be fed often to allow the digestive system to absorb the sugars and protein in the milk without leading to diarrhea and other problems.
A knowledgeable veterinarian can work out a timetable for these feedings and can recommend the best milk replacer to be used. Foals being fed milk replacer should be offered small quantities of high-quality feed beginning at approximately two weeks of age. Gradually, the amount of feed can be increased and the amount of milk replacer reduced.
In addition to good nutrition and proper feeding schedules, orphan foals will need to be socialized. If a nurse mare is on the scene, socializing will most likely develop naturally with the mare's attention. If not, a pony or other horse may serve as a role model. In some cases, nanny goats have been used successfully in this role.
Orphaned foals that are bottle-fed may attempt to bond with the handler, but this should be avoided. Replacing the bottle with a bucket for feedings as soon as possible will help reduce direct contact with the handler.
Some orphan foals develop vices such as kicking, pawing the ground, or tossing their heads when frustrated. These actions may become dangerous as the foal grows larger and stronger.
Proper socializing will enable the orphaned foal to communicate with other horses and reduce the inclination to show fear, suck on their sides or legs, or attempt to nurse other horses. Although raising an orphan foal can be time-consuming, it is well worth the extra work.
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