Neonatal problems

When your mare is having a foal it can be a very stressful time for you and the mare. It is important that you know what to expect so that you can pick up any problems early on. Foals can become sick very quickly so it important to watch them closely and consult your vet if you are at all concerned.

It is very important to know how a normal foal should behave when it is born so that you can pick up subtle signs which may indicate a problem.
Here are some important indicators:

  • A normal foal should stand within 30 minutes to one hour of birth and should suck within 2 hours of birth.
  • The foal should be alert and aware of its surroundings and able to stand unassisted.
  • Foals often breath quite fast when they are first born but should not be showing signs of having difficulty breathing – their breathing rate should decrease over the first 24 hours of life.
  • The foal should pass dark brown firm faeces known as the meconium within the first 12 hours of life.
  • The foal should urinate normally within the first 12 hours.
  • The foals gums should be pink in colour.

The following are some important signs which tell us that there is a problem with the foal but if you are at all concerned about your foal you should call your vet immediately. Foals should be checked by a vet within their first 24 hours of life.
If the foal fails to stand or suck within 2 hours of birth this is a serious problem and you should call your vet immediately as this may result in failure of passive transfer. Foals are generally born without immunity to infection; foals acquire the immunity they need through their mothers colostrum (first milk) which is high in antibodies; antibodies in turn are used by the immune system to identify and remove bacteria and viruses that cause infection.
Foals should pass faeces and urine with relative ease; if the foal is repeatedly straining to urinate or defaecate this may indicate a serious problem such as a ruptured bladder or meconium (the first faecal material produced by a newborn foal) retention.
It is also important to assess the new born foal for any signs of limb deformities (bent legs).
A foal which is weak and has yellow mucous membranes should be seen by a vet straight away as it may have neonatal isoerythrolysis, which is the breakdown of the foals red blood cells; the cells are attacked by specific anti-red blood cell antibodies that are ingested and absorbed via the mare’s colostrum (also called haemolytic foals).
If the foal appears dull, disorientated or doesn’t appear able to see it may be that it was starved of oxygen at birth resulting in neonatal maladjustment syndrome (a neurological disorder) and you should call your vet immediately if you suspect this.
Foals should be checked for broken ribs which can occur at birth and can be very painful for them.
The umbilicus of the foal should be checked for any abnormalities and it should be treated with an antiseptic preparation such as iodine, ask your vet for advice on what is best to use for your foal.
When the foal is sucking it is important to notice whether any milk comes down the foals nose as this may be a sign of a cleft palate.

It is recommended that foals be checked by a vet within the first 24 hours of life so that any problems can be dealt with quickly and effectively. Your vet will check you foal for all those signs mentioned above but will also be able to check your foals heart, lungs and eyes more closely looking for any signs of birth defects or problems which may have arisen while the foal was being born.
Foals may be born with heart defects, cleft palate or cataracts which will only be detected on thorough examination by a vet. It is also a good opportunity for the vet to check your mare to make sure she hasn’t got any problems after giving birth such as retained placenta or vaginal tears. Your vet will also check that the mare has got sufficient milk and that the foal is feeding well. Depending on the mares vaccination status your vet may also give the foal tetanus antitoxin to protect the foal against tetanus.
Your vet will ask you lots of questions about the foaling to try and assess if the mare or foal are at risk for any particular diseases. If the placenta is available your vet will also want to examine that as it gives an excellent indication of the foals nutrition while in the uterus.
If you have noticed anything that you are concerned about you should tell your vet at this stage and they can give you advice.