Mares can rebreed fairly early after birthing compared to most animal species. For broodmares expected to produce a foal every year, the average time between pregnancies is 10 days to two weeks.

For this reason and others, postpartum care is critical for a mare. Not only does it help ensure her health and chances of conceiving again, but also helps ensure the well-being of her foal.

"Anything that bothers the mare will jeopardize her behavior and relationship with the foal," said Ahmed Tibary, DVM, PhD, a Washington State University associate professor and large animal theriogenologist. "There is normal maternal-foal behavior established in the first hours after birth that is very important for the livelihood of the foal and the transmission of passive immunity through colostrum. Whenever the mare is compromised, the foal becomes immediately compromised as well.

"There are some principles regarding postpartum care that every breeder should be aware of, no matter how normal the foaling may appear," he said. "Ideally, it is best if an owner can attend the foaling and observe the birth because that is where most problems begin. But even if the foaling was not observed, one has to make sure that everything is normal with the mare, including her behavior--that she is bonding with the foal, not acting overly painful, colicky, or kicking at her belly, and that she is eating and drinking. It is also important to check her vital signs, such as temperature (between 99 and 101°F) and heart rate (ideally slower than 50 beats per minute), that her mammary glands are clean, and that she is producing enough colostrum (16 to 32 ounces) and milk, and that she delivered near her due date."

Another key element of postpartum care is to make sure the mare's placenta is normal and completely eliminated within three hours after foaling. If the mare retains any portion of the placenta, she is at risk of developing a uterine infection and endotoxemia. This condition can become life threatening and cause systemic problems such as colic and laminitis.

"The placenta is also a very good indicator of the environment of the uterus. If the placenta shows any lesions, that can indicate an infection called placentitis. This would mean the foal would need further attention due to risk of septicemia," Tibary explained. "It can also tell us a lot about whether there were twin pregnancies or other abnormalities, such as insufficiency of placentation. It is best if a veterinarian examines the placenta because some lesions can easily be missed and the consequences can be very serious."

In fact, because placental retention and other problems might not be obvious from a mare's outward appearance, a veterinarian should perform a vaginal exam within 12 hours after foaling.

A third part of postpartum care is to examine the foal. An owner or veterinarian can take the foal's vital signs, make sure it is getting enough colostrum, and that it is standing, nursing, and displaying normal behavior.

"We usually like foals to be really active as they drop, and then be in a sternal position within 15 minutes," Tibary said. "They should be standing and nursing within an hour to two hours, and pass meconium, or the first feces, within 12 hours after birth."

To help prevent infection, an owner should also dip the foal's umbilicus or navel in a disinfectant solution several times after birth. One good disinfectant is a 0.5% chlorhexidine solution.

Owners can observe and be involved with the foal and mare postpartum, but should be careful not interfere too much because it could compromise the mare-foal bonding process. Part of normal maternal behavior includes protecting the foal, so even a gentle mare needs space with her foal.

If the mare and foal are doing well the first day or so postpartum, it is essential to provide the mare with exercise and access to a paddock to help her uterus "shrink" or involute and eliminate fluids. She should also be fed quality feed to prevent constipation. Observation should continue throughout the next 10 to 14 days to guard against complications such as colic.

Once the mare comes back into foal heat, a veterinarian should perform a pre-breeding exam to ensure she is ready to conceive again.

What can go wrong

Approximately 10 to 15% of mares might experience postpartum problems. Retained placentas and uterine infections are some of the most common problems, as well as cervical tears, vaginal bruising and tears, poor milk production, mastitis, and rectal-vaginal tears.

Foal rejection and behavioral problems may also occur more in mares that have given birth for the first time because they may have more pain from bruising, stretching, and nursing soreness. They may also have a higher incidence of insufficient mammary gland development or a colostrum shortage.

Older mares may also experience more bruising and behavioral problems, and are more at risk for serious injuries like ruptured uterine arteries.

Other less common but very serious problems include uterine prolapse, bladder prolapse, bladder rupture, uterine rupture, and uterine hemorrhage. These are all emergency situations and require immediate veterinary examination and often referral to specialized hospitals.

"These are rare conditions, but a typical scenario that involves one might be an older mare that is shivering, colicky or acting off a few hours after foaling," Dr. Tibary said. "I wouldn't wait to get help for that mare because she may have severely ruptured arteries with hemorrhage, and it is just a matter of hours before she dies.

"If the situation is very alarming, the most important thing to do is to keep the mare calm and place her in a very quiet, dark, and calm environment," he said. "Consult a veterinarian on the phone for either moving or handling her there, and get veterinary help to arrive as soon as possible."

It is often difficult to care for the foal and dam at the same time and every situation needs to be handled differently. Separation from the foal can increase agitation and further compromise the health of the mare.

Preparations for foaling and the postpartum period starts a year before by properly collecting and storing colostrum and milk in case of an emergency, rather than trying to milk a compromised mare when a situation occurs.

"Postpartum care does not start after the mare gives birth," Dr. Tibary said. "It is a continuum of pregnancy and foaling monitoring, with hopefully someone attending the birth to prevent or get treatment for problems quickly for both the mare and the foal."

Area horse owners can contact Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital at 509/335-0711 for consultation about postpartum complications or emergency care.


Reprinted from the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine Equine News Spring 2007 issue.
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