Foaling Time Is Here: What Do I Need To Know?

The time has finally arrived, and the last eleven months seem like minutes as the new foal tries to get to his feet for the first time. As I watch him repeatedly attempting to stand on his wobbly legs, I ask myself, "Is everything going right? How long does it normally take for a foal to stand and nurse for the first time? How can I ensure the health of my newborn foal?"The time has finally arrived, and the last eleven months seem like minutes as the new foal tries to get to his feet for the first time. As I watch him repeatedly attempting to stand on his wobbly legs, I ask myself, "Is everything going right? How long does it normally take for a foal to stand and nurse for the first time? How can I ensure the health of my newborn foal?"

Story originally posted by: Michael Lowder, DVM, MS

The time has finally arrived, and the last eleven months seem like minutes as the new foal tries to get to his feet for the first time. As I watch him repeatedly attempting to stand on his wobbly legs, I ask myself, "Is everything going right? How long does it normally take for a foal to stand and nurse for the first time? How can I ensure the health of my newborn foal?"

Preparation for a foal should occur long before birthing. Nutrition, deworming, and vaccination of the mare should all be addressed.

Gradually increasing the nutrition in the mare during the last trimester of pregnancy ensures adequate nutrition for two. During the last trimester, the mare should consume 1.5-2% of her body weight in dry matter (grain, hay and grass) with a crude protein between 10-11%. Mares may decrease their forage consumption during this time due to their belly being very large and feeling full!

The mare should be current on vaccinations and dewormed on the day of foaling to prevent the passage of the parasite Strongloides westeri, which can lead to diarrhea in the newborn foal.

Once the foal has arrived, assess the health of the mare. Is she acting normally? Did the placenta pass and is it all there? Lay the entire placenta out on the ground and check it for tears. There should only be one hole in the placenta where the foal exited.

If you find that it is torn, or doesn’t appear to be all there, call your veterinarian at once. A retained or torn placenta can lead to trouble. The most common sequela of a retained placenta is laminitis in the mare.

The foal should have a suckle reflex within 20 minutes of birth and should be up and nursing within an hour and a half. If he’s not, summon your veterinarian to help you milk the mare out and feed the foal via a stomach tube to ensure adequate colostrum intake.

The colostrum supplies antibodies needed by the foal to fight off disease, and these antibodies are absorbed through the gut only during the first 24 hours of life. Therefore, close observation is necessary to ensure that appropriate nursing occurs in the first hours after foaling.

A veterinarian should evaluate your foal in the first 24 hours of life to assess his health. In addition to physical examination, immunoglobulin (i.e., IgG which is a type of antibody) levels should be evaluated and should exceed 800 mg/dl. Foals with low IgG concentrations are more likely to be predisposed to bacterial infections, e.g., joint ill.

If levels are less than 800, foals less than 12 hours old may be given additional colostrum. If the foal is greater than 12 hours old, it should be given a plasma transfusion to provide adequate antibodies.

Foals will nurse every 1-2 hours for the 1st 1-2 weeks and then every 2-4 hours for the next 2 wks. Foals should get 0.5-1 pint per feeding and consume 20-25% of their body wt per day. They should gain 1.5-3lbs/day depending on their breed and size.

After the foal has nursed, inspect the mucous membranes and examine the foal for any abnormal conditions (e.g., overbite, congenital deformities). The gums should be pink and moist. If you see any yellow discoloration of the mucous membranes, a more serious condition known as neonatal isoerythrolysis may be occurring and your veterinarian should examine the foal.

While foals have been defecating for years without any help from mankind, an enema can be beneficial (use an enema purchased from your local drug store). The enema helps ensure the passage of the meconium (the foal’s first manure). A retained meconium often leads to discomfort and can become troublesome for the foal to pass.

Dipping or spraying the navel with a disinfectant solution (chlorhexdine is better than a betadine solution) will help prevent navel ill. The umbilicus should be dipped in 0.5% chlorohexidine solution or a 2% tincture of iodine to decrease the risk for ascending infections. The dipping should be repeated 2 times daily for 3 days.

Imprinting should be initiated once the foal has nursed and is standing but should not be implemented before the mare has had time to smell and lick the foal. Imprinting desensitizes the foal to handling and other external stimuli and sensitizes the foal to human interaction. This procedure involves rubbing the foal down with towels and touching all areas of the body in order to desensitize him. Imprinting should be repeated daily until the foal is comfortable with human interaction. The mare should be haltered and facing the foal during this process.

Tendon laxity is one of the most common disorders seen in foals. Foals may have weakness in the flexor tendons resulting in bilateral over extension of the phalangeal joints. Recognized as "dropped" fetlocks or elevated toes, this condition is the result of prematurity or dysmaturity and usually corrects on its own. If severe cases occur, the tendons may require bandage support or surgical intervention.

Nutrition of the foal is initially dependent upon the mare, and her needs should not be forgotten. During the first three months of lactation, the mare should consume 2.5-3% of body weight with crude protein at 13%. After the first three months of lactation, she should consume 2-2.5% of her body weight, and crude protein intake should be at 11%. Mares should be kept on a well balanced diet with grain never exceeding 50% of the total diet. Loose trace mineral salts and unlimited water should be available at all times.

I hope you enjoy this spring with your healthy newborn foal.