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Also Known As

Blood poisoning, Sepsis


Septicemia is a disease involving bacteria or toxins in the bloodstream and tissues of the horse. Septicemia occurs when the bacteria that are always present in the horse's environment cause an infection that overwhelms the horse's immune system

Once septicemia develops, the infection spreads to other organs, bones, joints, and the central nervous system causing a critical illness that calls for immediate treatment by a veterinarian.

In foals, septicemia resulting from exposure to bacteria in the environment usually occurs within three or four days of delivery. If septicemia occurs in-utero from passage of bacteria across the placenta, the foal may be delivered in a weakened or comatose state.

Clinical signs are often generalized and subtle and, therefore, are not usually recognized until the foal is critically ill. The survival rate for foals with septicemia runs between thirty and seventy-five percent.


  • Inability to stand
  • Weakened ability to suckle
  • General weakness
  • Lethargy
  • Diarrhea
  • Excessive sleeping or resting
  • Fever
  • Labored breathing
  • Bloating
  • Colic-like symptoms
  • Swollen and painful joints


Septicemia is an infection caused by bacteria or bacterial toxins that invade the entire body through the bloodstream and/or tissues. A diagnosis is based on a physical examination, plus laboratory tests and a blood culture to identify the causative bacteria, which helps the veterinarian prescribe appropriate antibiotics.

In older horses, inflammatory bowel disease or GI obstruction that disturbs the intestinal barrier, allowing bacteria to move to intestinal lymphoid tissue, where inflammatory cells can be activated can lead to septicemia resulting in multiple organ failure and gut damage, and the cycle is then ongoing.


Preventing septicemia in horses requires maintaining good hygiene in all areas where a horse might be injured or contract a condition that could lead to systemic blood poisoning thereby compromising the horse's immune system.

In foals, preventing septicemia requires maintaining good hygiene during the mare's pregnancy and in the foaling environment. The mare should be placed in the foaling stall several weeks before foaling to allow her to produce antibodies against pathogens common to the foaling environment.

Foaling stalls should be disinfected before they are used, and cleaned daily. The mare should be washed daily to reduce bacterial buildup from the environment. These proactive measures will help reduce the risk of septicemia in the foal.

Attention to proper disinfection of the umbilical stump immediately following delivery is extremely important in preventing infection. Before the foal is allowed to nurse, the mare's udder, perineum, and rear quarters should be completely washed to remove any fecal material and other sources of bacteria.

Making sure that the foal receives adequate high-quality colostrum is critically important. Potential risk factors predisposing foals to septicemia are previous abortions in the dam or problems with previous foals.

Prematurity or being small at birth may impair a foal's immunity. Foals that are stained with meconium or that require resuscitation are at greater risk of septicemia. .

Working with a veterinarian prior to and during foaling is of paramount importance in preventing septicemia and other threatening complications.


If a veterinarian is not present at foaling, any signs of septicemia or a less-than-healthy foal call for immediate contact with the veterinarian. Antibiotics help reduce the spread of septicemia pending definite diagnosis through laboratory tests and a blood culture.

Although in the past, veterinarians avoided treating older horses with antimicrobial drugs in cases of septicemia, is is now considered a sound medical approach, requiring frequent and thorough patient monitoring, aggressive fluid therapy, cardiovascular support, appropriate antimicrobial drugs, and nutritional support, regardless of the animal's age.>/p>

Anti-endotoxin therapy remains important in cases of GI disturbances and other severe illnesses, such as retained placenta and metritis (uterine inflammation).

Many cases of septicemia are best treated in an equine hospital or clinic because of the need for around-the-clock care, the lengthy treatment with antibiotics and supportive drugs that is required, and the serious nature of the infection.

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EquiMed Staff

EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.