Time to Thrive: Neonatal Health Concerns

Time is life for a foal. If you are even the least bit concerned, call your veterinarian immediately.

Photo: iStock

A look at health risks and survival rates among equine neonates

In fact, the phrase “Foals are programmed for survival” has been a mantra James Orsini, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, has used for years. 

Orsini, an associate professor of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center, in Kennett Square, frequently cites supporting data from a group of broodmares that foaled in large pastures in Western Canada with minimal human intervention. In that study, the overall neonatal survival rate to 10 days of age was 78%, not far off from the 80-99% survival rates observed in groups of intensively managed mares and foals—think horses that are handled daily and watched carefully for signs of pending parturition (birth) or associated problems. Leading causes of death in these unmanaged foals included starvation (27%), septicemia (infection of the blood, 26%), and dystocia, or difficult birth (20%). 

“These data show that even foals born under ‘rudimentary’ conditions have an excellent chance of survival during a fragile period of their lives,” says Orsini.

That said, we still need to be prepared to quickly intervene on the foal’s behalf when things do go wrong.

“The first step to success is recognizing conditions that might contribute to a foal being sick, quickly recognizing when the foal needs help, and knowing how and where to get the help they need,” says Orsini. 

Here we’ll review the latest information regarding the top causes of neonatal illness, including the impact mare health has on the foal, why the foal—even though remarkably resilient—remains fragile, tips for recognizing illness, and things to keep in mind if a neonate does get sick. 

Dam Difficulties

Most foal losses occur in the early stages of pregnancy, referred to as early embryonic death. So when we have the finish line within our sights—usually somewhere in the third trimester of -pregnancy—we often think we’re home free. Alas, this is not always the case. Many factors contribute to neonatal loss at this stage, one of which is mare management. 

“Maternal ‘mishap’ and illness, such as uterine torsion or a strangles outbreak, significantly increase the risk of foal morbidity (illness) and mortality,” says Orsini. 

Other examples of goings-on with the mare that negatively impact the foal include inflammation of the fetoplacental unit (the foal and placental tissues), such as placentitis, often caused by infection and evident as vaginal/uterine discharge; colic, with or without surgery; and the hoof disease laminitis. 

“One study showed that 58% of foals born to mares that suffered clinical disease during pregnancy died,” says Orsini, so promoting good health with a proper diet, routine vaccinations, and other preventive care is crucial. “Timing of mare illness during pregnancy also appears to impact foal health and survival. Many studies suggest that the earlier in gestation a problem occurs, the better the foal’s chances are for survival.”  

The parturition process itself is also hard on the foal, even when it’s a completely normal delivery. Although mares can and do foal independently, implementing even minimal intervention strategies (such as being there in case a problem such as dystocia occurs) negates a large percentage of mishaps. 

“Dystocia increases the risk of neonatal death by 17 times,” says Orsini. “Of the births that did not go smoothly, many were unattended.” 

All in all, simply providing appropriate mare care during gestation and attending the birth improves the chances for an uneventful foaling.

Finally, mothering behavior also impacts foal survival. One example of normal maternal behavior is helping the foal stand and nurse. Consuming that first meal, the mare’s antibody-rich colostrum, is imperative for avoiding failure of passive transfer of immunity. Foals that either do not nurse or have blood IgG values (which reflect the presence of infection-fighting antibodies obtained from that colostrum meal) lower than 400 mg/dL are 63 times more likely to die than foals with IgG levels above 400 mg/dL.

 This article continues in the February 2017 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care. Get an immediate download of this issue when you subscribe now and learn more about the risks that foals face after delivery and how to recognize signs of trouble.

About the Author

Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc

Stacey Oke, MSc, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and freelance medical writer and editor. She is interested in both large and small animals, as well as complementary and alternative medicine. Since 2005, she's worked as a research consultant for nutritional supplement companies, assisted physicians and veterinarians in publishing research articles and textbooks, and written for a number of educational magazines and websites.

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