Head to Tail Neonatal Care

With the economy the way it is, many neonatal foals are being managed on the farm rather than being sent to a clinic, according to Kelsey A. Hart, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, at the recent American Veterinary Medical Association meeting in Atlanta.

While a veterinarian should evaluate every newborn foal, it is important that owners also keep a close eye on the animal. "Really bad problems can have subtle signs early on. If you are seeing something that is giving you pause, it is probably something worth investigating," said Hart.

Although the veterinarian's physical examination should pick up most neonatal problems, the foal's status can change quickly. "In the foal things can change in a matter of minutes," said Hart.

Within a few hours after birth, a healthy foal should be able to get up and down easily, nurse ferociously, and should resent being handled. "A foal that is not trying to run away or kick you probably has something wrong with it," she joked.

A neonate's vital parameters differ from an adult horse, she said, and owners should call the veterinarian if:

  • the temperature is lower than 99° F or higher than 102° F even if it's hot outside. (Normal for a foal is 100° F to 102° F.);
  • his heart rate is faster or slower than 80-120 beats per minute;
  • his nostrils are flared, his breathing is irregular, his mucous membranes have a bluish tinge, or he "forgets to breathe" or has an irregular pattern to his breathing (The respiratory rate is about 20-40 breaths per minute, but some foals that are stressed might have a respiratory rate of 40-50.);
  • he has any nasal discharge, no matter what it looks like, including even a small amount of milk from his nose after nursing;
  • he's not nursing well (normal foals nurse several times an hour);
  • his mucous membranes are too pale, too red, or yellowish;
  • his behavior is just off--he spends a lot of time standing quietly, falls asleep standing up, or is laying down a lot;
  • his eyes aren't clear, shiny, and alert, and he's not "following" the mare;
  • he has any abdominal distention, is straining to pass feces, or has any diarrhea; and
  • the umbilical stump is enlarged, hot, painful, has any discharge, or leaks fluid when the foal urinates.

Any signs of lameness or joint swelling or pain should be considered a medical emergency in a foal, she said. "I always hear that the mare stepped on the foal, but I've never actually seen a case where the mare stepped on the foal," she warned. "It is almost always a septic joint, which must be caught early and treated very aggressively."

About the Author

Marie Rosenthal, MS

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