Recognizing Critical Illness in Foals: Is He Sick, or Just Napping?

Mare and foal in stall.
Mare and foal in stall. Shutterstock

Newsdate: June 1, 2018, 10:40 am
Location: LEXINGTON, Kentucky

In an article by Madison Seamans, DVM, MS, on the AAEP website, Dr. Seamans discusses the miracles of the new foal and offers important advice to all horse owners who might be involved with a new foal related to determining if a foal is in distress or simply taking a good rest.

Mare cleaning new foal.

Mare cleaning new foal

Learn important information to help determine if a new foal is healthy or in distress.
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Few things in nature are more inspiring than new foals frolicking around their mothers on a crisp spring morning. The fact that a foal can be up and running within short hours after birth is but one in a long series of miracles. Conception is miraculous in itself. Development in utero, in the womb, begins with the formation of all of the organ systems and is followed by the maturation of them. During the entire process, the foal is completely dependent on the mother’s blood supply for eating, breathing and eliminating metabolic waste products. Many of the organ systems function differently in utero than they do after birth. Parturition, or birthing, initiates changes in the heart, lungs, liver and urinary bladder which must occur almost instantly. These changes are essential for adaptation to life on the outside.

Fortunately, things proceed normally almost all of the time. Foals have survived the cold, cruel world much longer than there have been foal-watch teams to worry about them. However, how do we know when things are not right? What are the signs? What can and should be done? In order to understand how things can go wrong, it is important to review the normal physiological processes taking place around the time of birth. 

When we watch horses, young or old, running free on a glorious day, we seldom think of all the processes that must take place for oxygen and energy to fuel one of God’s most amazing athletes. It may not seem obvious, but when the foal is still in utero he does not breathe or eat. The blood supply flowing to the mother’s uterus, or womb, is very close to that of the foal. Oxygen and nutrients are transferred directly into the blood supply of the developing fetus through an elaborate system of membranes called the placenta. This is attached to the foal through his belly button, the umbilicus. In addition, there are shunts, little detours which direct blood away from the lungs and liver, since these organs are not needed until the beginning of life on the outside. Immediately after birth, these shunts must change to allow normal function of all body systems. Cardiovascular (heart, lung and blood vessels) changes occur first and the blood is instantly directed to flow through the lungs so they can inflate, absorb oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. 

Other changes involving the liver, urinary bladder, intestinal lining and immune system occur in the hours after birth and are critical to survival. The channel between the bladder and umbilicus, the urachus, is normally closed at birth so urine starts flowing through the appropriate pathway. The intestinal lining, or epithelium, remains very porous during the first six to eight hours of life. This allows absorption of some very large molecules called antibodies ingested in the first milk, or colostrum. This provides immunity from bacteria, viruses and other potentially life-threatening infectious diseases. The “passive immunity” is essential for the life of the foal until his immune system matures and he is capable of making his own antibodies through “active immunity” at about six months of life. For this reason, foals are not routinely vaccinated for most diseases before about six months, as they may not be capable of producing an immune response to “shots”. If the mare is vaccinated about 30 days prior to her “due date”, she will pass the immunity on to her foal when he nurses the colostrum during the first day of life.    

Appreciation of the transition between prenatal life in utero to neonatal life on the outside helps us understand processes present when things go wrong. When a foal becomes ill, many of his body systems want to revert back to the warm, safe confines he had in the “mom”. However, the prenatal function of most organ systems is not compatible with life on the outside. When the normal physiological role is absent, the invasion of bacteria, viruses and fungi can cause illness in foals. The term “neonatal septicemia” describes foals with a serious infection in the blood stream. 

Read this important article about foal health by Dr. Seamans on the AAEP website.

As Dr. Seamans points out in his conclusion: "The amazing phenomenon of new life usually proceeds without difficulty. However, if a foal presents with any of the symptoms discussed here, veterinary attention is advised. Most of these cases should be treated as an emergency, so waiting for normal office hours is seldom an option. Many at risk foals can be saved with some simple mare-side techniques that can avoid major problems later. Above all, when in doubt, call your veterinarian."

About the Author

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.