Foaling Alarms--Expecting Company?
The birth of a foal can be a nerve-racking, not to mention exhausting, experience--and not just for the mare. The humans involved can expect many sleepless nights in anticipation of being there for the big moment. An attended delivery will allow the detection of any problems during the birth, or immediately after.
That means if there is a problem, your veterinarian can be notified immediately, which can greatly increase the chances of a healthy foal and mare. There also are some cases where there is a medical reason for ensuring that the delivery is monitored, such as to protect a foal from ingesting colostrum from a mare at risk for causing neonatal isoerythrolysis (NI) in her foal. You also might want to closely watch mares which have a history of dystocias (difficult births).
But even without a medical reason, it is always just a good idea to monitor the birth process to ensure that there are no difficulties with the birth or with the foal. Eleven months is an awfully long time to wait to have something go wrong in a matter of minutes--with the potential to lose the foal, the mare, or both just because you weren't aware of the birth.
In this article, we will discuss several options for birth alarms and/or monitoring systems and list the pros and cons for each so that you can make an educated choice as to what system(s) would work best for you and your horse.
There are several types of foaling alarms available. They are designed to notify the person responsible (owner, farm manager, or foaling attendant) that the mare is in labor. Some systems can notify multiple people. The devices all have the same basic principle: When the mare goes into labor, a signal is transmitted from the device to a receiver that either sounds an alarm, notifies a pager, or calls a telephone number. The differences in the devices is their position on the mare and how they are activated. The following is not meant to be a comprehensive list, or a list of the best devices; but it is a discussion of the foaling alarms with which I am most familiar.
Getting Into Position
There are several devices that work the same way as Breeder Alert, a small, battery-powered device is situated in a pouch attached to the halter (under the jawbone). The alarm is sounded when the mare's head is in lateral recumbency (the position in which they usually give birth) for at least 15 seconds. After 15 seconds of being in lateral recumbency, the device signals the receiver, which sounds the alarm and/or activates the pager. The mare and the device must be within 200 feet of the receiver station.
- The advantages of this device are:
- It does not require a veterinarian to attach it to the mare;
- Installation and set-up are simple, and;
- The transmitter is very low-profile.
Multiple mares can wear these devices at one time, therefore multiple mares can be monitored simultaneously.
The main disadvantage of this device is that some late term-pregnant mares will lie in lateral recumbency when they are sleeping or resting, not in labor. So with some mares, there is the chance of a false alarm, sometimes multiple times a night, which can mean several trips to the barn in the middle of the night (what you were trying to avoid). Also, some mares might not lay down to foal. Therefore, the alarm will not be activated.
EquiPage/EquiFone foaling alarm system is very similar to the Breeder Alert, in that the transmitter is housed on
the halter just under the jawbone. The transmitter requires a battery. The alarm is activated when the mare lies in lateral recumbency for more than 10 seconds. The transmitter then sends a signal to a repeater, and a pager or telephone number is dialed. The pager is only viable within one to two miles of the repeater. The same advantages and disadvantages apply to the EquiPage/ EquiFone as to the Breeder Alert systems.
The Foal-Alert device is surgically attached to the mare's vulva. The device consists of a magnet and a transmitter. The magnet and transmitter are both sutured into the lips of the vulva (the magnet on one side, the transmitter on the other) and the magnet is inserted into the transmitter, creating a breakable barrier across the vulva. When the foal begins to emerge from the birth canal, his front feet will easily pull the magnet out of the transmitter, which sends a signal to a receiver and activates an alarm in one of three ways. An auxiliary alarm sounds a loud alarm at the base station (which must be within 200 feet of the transmitter), a pocket receiver (pager) can be activated (used within three miles of the receiver), and a phone dialer can notify you via telephone.
The advantage of this device is that there is very little chance of a false alarm. So far, only one mare in my practice set off the alarm prematurely by getting her tail tangled in the suture and pulling the magnet out.
The disadvantages of this device are:
- A veterinarian must suture the device onto the vulvar lips (but this procedure is very simple and inexpensive); and
- If there is a dystocia, in some instances the Foal-Alert will not be activated because the feet might not emerge from the birth canal enough to dislodge the magnet out of the transmitter.
This device uses the mare's position to activate the alarm similar to the Breeder Alert, but with additions to the system. The Birth Alarm is housed in the top of an anti-roll surcingle. When the device is activated, it sends a signal to the receiver and activates the alarm. The device can also be set up to notify a pager or telephone. The alarm is activated by settings:
- For the first setting, the alarm is activated when the mare lies in lateral recumbency for more than 7.6 seconds;
- If you have a late-term mare which tends to sleep or rest in lateral recumbency, a second setting can be used that only activates the alarm if the mare lies down, then rolls back up within a three-minute interval. If she lies down and is quiet for more than three minutes (as in sleeping), then the alarm will not go off.
This device also claims to be waterproof, so it can be used with mares which are housed outside.
Advantages to this system are:
- A veterinarian isn't required to install the device; and
- It has relatively simple set-up and placement on the mare.
The disadvantages include that in some instances, such as with dystocias, the mare might not lie down at all.
The Equine Alarm is a new device on a surcingle that also detects when the mare lies down for foaling and alerts the owner through a receiver and pager system. The signal can travel about 0.3 miles, and it allows monitoring of up to four mares. In addition, the receiver can be connected to a phone dialer for notification via phone.
The Birth Alert system utilizes a sponge or "tampon" to house the alarm device and notify you of the impending birth. The alarm device is placed within the mare's vagina (just in front of the cervix) a few weeks before she is due to deliver. The device is activated when the mare's water breaks and the device is expelled from the vagina. The temperature change activates the device and thus the alarm.
The disadvantages are:
- The device must be placed into the mare's vagina in a sterile fashion or it could cause an ascending infection, so a veterinarian is required; and
- False alarms have occurred when the device slips out before the mare's water breaks.
Wyke Foaling Alarm
There are also systems that are composed of a surcingle and breastplate and that sound the alarm when they detect sweat. Many mares sweat when they go into labor, so this device works on that physiologic event. The Wyke Foaling Alarm has a sensor that is mounted on one of the neck straps and lies against the neck. At the first sign of sweat, it triggers a radio signal to the alarm receiver. The signal can carry about 1,500 feet in most circumstances, it contains a circuit that checks the state of its battery, and if it becomes discharged it will alert the receiver and a warning light will indicate the problem. Up to six transmitters can be used on the system and each one is identifiable by a separate light on the receivers front panel. This is useful for monitoring mares kept in separate buildings.
The most obvious disadvantage is that if your horse sweats for a reason other than impending birth, the alarm will go off.
Because no birth alarm is 100% foolproof, birth alarm systems should be used in conjunction with other monitoring systems. One such system is your own two eyes, checking on the mare at least every hour, if not every 30 minutes when foaling appears imminent. Remember, once the mare's water breaks, the foal needs to be delivered within 30 minutes or else hypoxia (lack of oxygen) can occur. This can lead to a "dummy" foal (neonatal maladjustment syndrome) or the foal could die.
One way to make mare-watching less labor-intensive is with closed-circuit television. A system of this type is composed of a camera and a connecting wire to a television monitor.
A camera can be installed in the mare's stall at the best vantage point to view the entire stall. The monitor can be installed in the barn office, tack room, or in your house if you live on the same property. An electrician can install a closed-circuit system in a few hours. The only requirement for viewing is usually some degree of low lighting. If you begin leaving a single light on near your mare's stall to illuminate it, then she will adjust to it by the time she foals.
Closed-circuit television systems are available everywhere, including big warehouse buying clubs, electronics catalogs, and E-bay.
Wireless is the Way
Technology now offers wireless camera monitoring systems. These systems are easy to install because they are composed of a camera-transmitter and a monitor with a receiver, so no electrician is required. There is no cable to run from the stall to the tack room or your house. Depending on the frequency of the system, the monitors can be up to 1,500 feet (or more) away. The most common systems available are 2.4 gHz systems that allow for 700 feet of distance between the receiver and monitor. The cameras usually work with a simple television monitor, and you can have either a black and white or color picture. The systems can also plug into a VCR so that the picture can be recorded. Some systems even have audio available. Most wireless systems need some type of light; however, there are now infrared systems that allow monitoring in total darkness for those mares which are disturbed by light.
The wireless camera system we use at our clinic has a monitor set-up in our office so that we can monitor the horses constantly. There is a camera in every stall, and the monitor displays each horse for five to 10 seconds, then rotates to the next horse. In this way, you can monitor multiple horses at one time or change the setting to have one horse displayed all the time. I even have an old black and white television set in my bedroom so I can watch my mares from the comfort of my bed when they are close to foaling.
Wireless systems are unique in that they allow for a complete monitoring system at a surprisingly low cost and easy set-up. Closed-circuit and wireless camera systems are not just for security surveillance. They can be used to monitor late-term mares ready to foal as we have discussed, but also to monitor horses prone to colic, becoming cast in their stall, or just for peace of mind that everyone is well.
By using a birth alarm and camera system, you have gone a long way in ensuring that the birth will be attended and giving your mare and newborn foal every chance for a normal and healthy delivery, while saving you some valuable peace of mind and sleep.
BIRTH ALARM OPTIONS
There are several different types of birth alarms, and they all work differently. Some are activated when a mare lies down for a certain period of time, some detect when the foal's feet emerge through the vulva, some alert you by pager, some call your phone, and some sound alarms. Evaluate each one's options to select the one that's right for you and your situation.
The EquiPage/EquiFone foaling alarm system uses a battery-powered transmitter housed on the halter just under the jawbone. The alarm is activated when the mare lies on her side for more than 10 seconds.
With the Breeder Alert, a small, battery-powered device sits in a pouch attached to the halter (under the jawbone), activating when the mare's head is laying to the side for at least 15 seconds. It also allows monitoring of multiple mares.
The Foal-Alert is surgically attached to the mare's vulva, with a magnet and transmitter sutured into opposite lips of the vulva. When the foal begins to emerge from the birth canal, his front feet push the two apart, sending a signal to a receiver and setting off the alarm.
The Equine Alarm detects when the mare lays down for foaling, and it allows monitoring of up to four mares at once.
The Birth Alarm is housed in the top of an anti-roll surcingle. It can be set to activate under different conditions.
5 TIPS: Birth Alarms
- It's always smart to monitor the birth so you can respond quickly to any difficulties with the birth or with the foal.
- Some alarm systems allow simultaneous monitoring of multiple mares.
- Closed-circuit TV can be used to monitor the mare without disturbing her unnecessarily.
- Some alarms must be surgically installed, while others attach to a halter or surcingle.
- Once the mare's water breaks, the foal needs to be delivered within 30 minutes or else hypoxia (lack of oxygen) can occur.
About the Author
Christina S. Cable, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, owns Early Winter Equine in Lansing, New York. The practice focuses on primary care of mares and foals and performance horse problems.
POLL: Managing Working Horses