Foaling & New Born Foals
Foaling and New Born Foals: information and identifying problems
Knowing what to expect, what is normal and the identification of possible problems can be of vital assistance in getting a live, healthy foal.
- Time – mares should deliver the foal within 15- 20 mins of entering 2nd stage labour. Usually there will be a rush of fluid ( breaking of waters) that marks the start of 2nd stage labour. The mare will usually lie down at this time and a whitish balloon will begin to emerge at her vulva. This is the amniotic sac containing the foal.Check the position of the foal is correct or ring the vet if no hooves/ forelegs are visible after 10mins of contractions. If possible get mare up and keep her walking until vet arrives.
- Position – the foal’s front legs should emerge first, followed by the nose/ head laying on top of the stretched out legs. Quite often one hoof/ leg will be a little in front of the other which helps the shoulders to pass through the birth canal. If only one leg can be seen emerging ; both legs but no head or the nose/ head but no legs, it could mean the foal is not in the correct position. Urgent vet assistance will be required. As in point one, try to get the mare up and walking around as this can help the situation from becoming worse.
- Amnion and Placenta – Careful examination of these is essential as they can be a good indicator of possible problems. The amnion should be white in colour. If it is stained yellow, it usually means the foal has passed meconium (first manure) which is indicative of some form of stress in the birthing process. The foal will need to be monitored closely for weakness and illness. The amnion with the foal inside should come out first and the placenta later on. If the placenta comes out with the foal, this is called a “red bag delivery” and is also a sign of stress and possible problems. The placenta should be delivered from the mare(3rd stage of labour) within 3 hours of foaling. If the mare has not dropped it in this time, call the vet as she will need injections (usually Oxytocin) and may require manual removal. Retained placenta can cause serious illness and death in mares so it is important that it comes out. It is also important to examine the placenta to make sure it is whole and has all come out.
- Bleeding / shock – mares will usually remain lying down for a little while after foaling. There may be a small amount of blood expelled from the vagina. Watch however for any continued flow of blood or signs of distress / shock in the mare including staggering/ shaking when she does get up / white or pale gums / rapid breathing etc which may be indicative of internal injury / bleeding.
Checking The Newborn Foal
- Breathing – the foal will instinctively begin to breathe as its chest emerges from the mare. Usually by this stage it has broken through the amnion. If the amnion has not broken or is over the foal’s head, tear it open and pull it back from the foal’s head and neck. For about the first 30 mins, its respiratory rate will be about 60-80 breaths / min. After this the foal’s breathing rate should slow and 1 – 12 hours after foaling it should be 30-40 breaths/ minute. Heart rate is normally greater than 60 beats per minute and should be 80 – 120bpm an hour after birth.
- Umbilical cord – it is usually best to let this break naturally and this will generally occur when the mare stands up after foaling. If the cord breaks and there seems to be excessive bleeding, pinch the end of the cord with your fingers or a clean towel until the bleeding stops. It is a good idea to spray the cord stump with very diluted Iodine at birth and again about 12 hours later.
- Sternal position – most foals will sit up in the first 5 minutes after birth. It is a good idea to sit the foal up ( sternal position – front legs out, sitting up on chest, head and neck raised) and give it a good rub all over with a clean, dry towel as this helps optimise circulation and breathing and also allows any fluid in the foal’s nose/mouth to drain out. The easiest way to do this is to stand with one leg either side of the foal’s shoulders and hold it in an upright position with your legs, leaving your hands free to position its head and neck and rub it with the towel.
- Suckling – foals should show a good suckle reflex by 20mins after birth. You can check this by placing your finger in the foal’s mouth – it should curl its tongue and suck. Foals will normally stand within an hour of being born, and should drink within 3 hours. It is most important to check that the foal is actually drinking (not just nosing around near the teat) and continues to drink well. Newborn foals drink over 100 times per day in the first week and then up to 65 times per day. Like all newborns, foals can very quickly become weak and dehydrated if not drinking adequately.
- Colostrum – foals have no immunity (antibodies) of their own at birth. They get protection from the mare’s first milk (colostrum) but can only absorb the antibodies in the colostrum during the first 6 – 18 hours after birth. Thus it is vital that the foal gets adequate supplies of good colostrum during this time. Your vet can do a simple blood test (IgG test) about 12 hours after the foal is born and this is certainly recommended. If the test is low (failure of passive transfer) than additional colostrum or an intravenous plasma transfusion can be administered by your vet.
- Meconium - these hard, dark brown droppings contained in the foal’s gut at birth need to passed within a few hours of birth. This is very important as if retained they can cause the foal pain, colic and death. Look for the droppings and watch the foal for signs such as straining (tail usually held upright), groaning, reduced interest in drinking , rolling, lying with front legs drawn up towards chest etc. Some studs recommend giving the foal an enema soon after birth – you can discuss this with your vet. You will notice the meconium be replaced by milk manure which is soft and yellow coloured.
- Infection – this is the main cause of death in newborn foals. Bacteria, usually picked up from the environment, can be throughout the body but most commonly cause problems in foal’s lungs, joints and digestive tract. Watch for dullness, not drinking (mare’s udder full and tight); abnormal temperature; diarrhoea; swollen joints, swollen or weepy umbilical cord, raspy breathing, coughing etc. Contact your vet as soon as you notice any sign of infection as prompt diagnosis and treatment is essential.
- Diarrhoea – almost 70 – 80% of foals between birth and weaning will suffer some form of diarrhoea. About 7- 12 days after foaling, many foals develop a mild diarrhoea called “foal heat scours” as the mare begins to cycle again. There are many other causes of diarrhoea – some more serious than others - and all but the mildest cases require prompt treatment as foals can quickly become dehydrated and very sick. Look for diarrhoea caked around the tail and down the back legs, often greyish, liquid and smelly instead of just soft and creamy yellow; signs of colic or gut pain ; not drinking etc
It may seem that there are a multitude of disastrous scenarios awaiting your mare and foal and most of this MAY NEVER HAPPEN.
However many of these diseases and conditions can be successfully treated, especially if noticed and treated early enough. Close monitoring and vigilance is your mare and foal’s greatest asset. Like all young animals, foals can go from apparently healthy to very sick in an extremely short time and monitoring during the vital first 7 – 10 days of their lives is very important.