Critically Ill Foals Saved by UF Equine Neonatal ICU

When Ocala resident Irene Bryan's Appaloosa mare, Skippa Secret, gave birth to a premature foal last year, both mother and baby needed immediate medical care. Thanks to veterinarians at the University of Florida's (UF) Hofmann Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, both horses survived.

"Our personal veterinarian, Dr. Andy Bennett, responded to my call in the middle of the night," Bryan said. "Based on what he saw after coming out and performing X rays on site, he recommended that we get both horses to the foal unit at UF as soon as possible."

When Bryan arrived at UF's large animal hospital, Bryan said veterinary emergency team members were waiting for them outside the facility with a gurney.

"I was immediately impressed," she said. "The overall experience was very satisfying."

The foal was treated for eight days with antimicrobials and supportive care for prematurity and sepsis. In addition, veterinarians successfully treated Skippa Secret for a retained placenta. Both animals are successfully recuperating at home, while UF veterinarians continue to monitor the pair's progress.

Meanwhile, Bryan's 9-year-old granddaughter, who witnessed much of the horses' ordeal, has decided she wants to become a veterinarian.

"The foal was a gift to my granddaughter so that she could show her in halter competition through 4-H," Bryan said. "She's now spending a lot of time with the foal and hopes to learn more about veterinary medicine because of this experience."

UF's neonatal intensive care unit, commonly referred to as the "foal unit," was established in the early 1980s and was the result of a unique partnership between veterinary specialists and human neonatologists at the UF Health Science Center. Neonatology research at UF has been funded by the Morris Animal Foundation and Florida's Pari-Mutuel Trust Fund, as well as by the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders & Owners Association.

The state-of-the-art facility is staffed by board-certified specialists who can provide immediate medical attention and handle any level of care quickly. The foal unit is Florida's only equine neonatal ICU that provides treatment by board-certified internists for critically ill foals and their dams, around-the-clock, 365 days a year.

"We've got the crash cart ready to go," said Dana Zimmel, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, ABVP, assistant professor of large animal medicine at UF.

Most foals treated at UF's foal unit are born prematurely or are under a month old. Bacterial infections, which can produce clinical signs within the first 24 hours after birth or the first month of life, are among the most common ailments treated at the unit.

"Primarily, we see foals with sepsis, or bacterial infections in their bloodstream; foals who have diarrhea or foals who have problems because they suffer from hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, or a lack of oxygen around the time of birth," Zimmel said. "Those foals, known as dummy foals, appear normal at first and then within the first 48 hours of life they lose the ability to nurse. They also lose their affinity for the mare and often progress to not being able to stand and even experience seizures."

Many foals treated for "dummy foal syndrome" have gone on to become outstanding athletes, Zimmel said. Strike the Gold, the 1991 Kentucky Derby winner, is just one example.

The unit accepts patients from referring veterinarians, as well as from individual clients who would like to bring their foals directly to UF's large animal hospital.

Anyone seeking more information about the foal unit should call the large animal hospital front desk at 352/392-2229.

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