A Second Chance: When the Foal has Problems

You've been on pins and needles since your mare got pregnant. This will be her, and your, first foal! Just like a human parent, you're so anxious and hopeful that all will "go well." Of course, the chances are good that it will, but what do you do when the baby is born with major problems? Since the subject was close to home, we decided to share some wise and poignant thoughts from our HorseCity.com English Content Editor, Heather Bailey, who vigilantly ...You've been on pins and needles since your mare got pregnant. This will be her, and your, first foal! Just like a human parent, you're so anxious and hopeful that all will "go well." Of course, the chances are good that it will, but what do you do when the baby is born with major problems? Since the subject was close to home, we decided to share some wise and poignant thoughts from our HorseCity.com English Content Editor, Heather Bailey, who vigilantly ...

Story originally posted by: Stephanie Stephens

You’ve been on pins and needles since your mare got pregnant. This will be her, and your, first foal! Just like a human parent, you’re so anxious and hopeful that all will "go well." Of course, the chances are good that it will, but what do you do when the baby is born with major problems?

Since the subject was close to home, we decided to share some wise and poignant thoughts from our HorseCity.com English Content Editor, Heather Bailey, who vigilantly watched over her very sick foal, Shawn, during his weeklong stay at the Marion DuPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Virginia. There, she not only thought long and hard about her own beloved equine baby, but she observed many other infants in various stages of illness. As a result, Bailey has formulated her own philosophies on the subject.

"You must always analyze what’s in the best future interest of the horse, first and foremost, and that includes finding out if it recovers, what will be its future quality of life? And of course, you need to analyze what costs are involved now, and, unfortunately what the impact on your financial future will be. A baby’s bill can be seven or ten thousand dollars," said Bailey, who counted hers, luckily, as significantly less than that.

"With Shawn we were pretty lucky, everyone was pretty certain he could pull through with no permanent handicaps," added Bailey. "It would have been a lot more difficult to make critical treatment decisions if we were faced with an animal that would have been permanently disabled or with minimum chances for survival."

Bailey bred her mare, a winning race and event horse, to a son of racehorse great, Secretariat; the dam was difficult to get in foal. But her pregnancy, remembers Bailey, went "smooth as silk." A milk test had predicted her foaling day in 48 to 72 hours, but a mere 5 hours later Bailey found mother and foal in the field. Right away she thought, "maybe the baby seemed a little dull."

The vet came, and initially wasn’t over concerned with the foal’s dullness due to the unconventional and unaided labor. She recommended that Bailey get the foal up every two hours to nurse, to help get his system going. However, after pulling an all-nighter, with little improvement (the infant would nurse, then lie down) the vet drew some blood and ran some tests. Within half an hour she called back with bad news, "I think he has a ruptured bladder."

"My heart just sank and it felt like I had been punched in the stomach," said Bailey.

Rushed to the Leesburg hospital, mother and baby began an arduous tenure that included Bailey subbing as the "visiting nurse." The foal was diagnosed, not with a ruptured bladder, but with an infected and non-functioning one: his kidneys were also impacted the same way. Catheters, oxygen and antibiotics were called into play, and eventually, the baby required surgery to remove his belly button, as the catheter had prevented the belly button to seal off from the body wall properly, causing him urinate out of his belly button.

After blood, sweat and yes, some tears, the little horse made it through, and now, reports his proud horse journalist mom, "Shawn is awesome. He’s going to be a great event horse. We broke him last fall, and he never even blinked; I think it was because he was handled so intensely."

Sadly, Shawn’s mom had apparently acquired or transferred the infection, which has prevented her from carrying a foal to term since. She now is enjoying a career as a school horse at Bailey’s sister-in-law’s farm.

Although Bailey’s story had a happy ending, she also cautions that those who think, "it’s cheaper to breed than to buy," had best think again. "Don’t tell yourself, ‘I can’t afford to buy a horse, so I’ll breed the mare.’ If you don’t have the resources in the beginning, you could be in for real heartbreak later."

Dr. Martin Furr, Diplomate, ACVIM and Phd, is associate professor of medicine at the Dupont hospital and has treated plenty of seriously ill babies. "The general story is that sick neonates tend to have one overriding problem, but as they progress through the illness, they develop other issues; if you’re astute, you can pick up on them. For the most part, the foals here do reasonably well; we’ve got an 80 percent success rate in taking care of fairly sick foals. We do tend to get the worst of the worst. Certain diseases, of course, have a lower prognosis."

One such malady, according to Furr, is neonatal cepsis, "which, overall, will have a 50 percent prognosis. It’s basically a blood-born infection, and can cause them to go into shock or multi-system organ failure. Other illnesses, less severe, include maladjustment syndrome, which is usually due to hypoxia (a state of inadequate blood oxygen level). It either follows a difficult foaling or occurs placental disease diminishes transfer of oxygen to the fetus around the time of birth."

When should a client quit, or give up on the baby? "It depends upon the individual case, but I tell people to quit when it is obvious that what we’re doing isn’t going to work, that the animal is continuing to deteriorate, and I have no more to offer. Or they should quit when the outcome is not likely to be something they’d be happy with, or when we develop a problem that would preclude the animal being used for what it’s meant to be used for."

At the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California at Davis, Dr. Irwin Liu is chief of service in reproduction. He, too, believes there’s no black and white answer when it comes to sick foals; every case is special and different.

"It’s difficult to judge in foals, as things can change hour by hour, day by day: they can go either way. Things to consider include economics. We usually prepare owners and give an estimate of what it may cost, with or without complications."

No matter what’s on paper, though, as expected, sentimentality can get in the way, acknowledges Liu. "When the bill comes, owners are sometimes shocked, but no one wants to lose their foal. When there are permanent defects, yes, one has to consider the future of the foal, particularly if it’s going to be a performance animal."

The average bill at this respected hospital runs between $5,000 and $10,000, reports Lieu, "but foals have a change of dying at 10K as well as at 5. True, emotions can get in the way of reality, but we have to accommodate them; we can’t ignore them."

Here’s hoping your new foal is all that you want it to be; if not, rest assured that at least you have options that will allow you to make the decision that’s right for you, and for your animal.