A Horse-Breeding Hiccup: Your Newborn Foal’s Health

Three common problems in young foals can be serious if overlooked.

The first 30 days of a healthy foal’s life are action-packed and filled with things to discover, friends to meet and people to investigate.

Assuming your mare performed a trouble-free foaling, and your little long-legged joy-maker has had relatively few health issues thus far, you’re probably walking on clouds. If your foal has been healthy thus far, you might also think you are out of the woods.

Hold up – not so fast. Don’t go on vacation just yet.

Foals, like babies, between the ages of 30 to 60 days are still developing their immunity and bone structure, putting them at high risk for several common afflictions.

Fortunately, early detection and treatment can result in great recovery for most foals. We asked Dr. Paige Thompson to explain the three most common and worrisome problems she sees in foals ages 30 to 60 days.

– Lame for No Apparent Reason

Your foal is gimpy. He moves as if he has been kicked or somehow hurt in the field. The foal wasn’t that way yesterday, so you chalk it up to a minor problem.

You should reconsider.

“Always assume that lame foal has an infected joint until proven otherwise,” Dr. Thompson says. “Do foals get kicked, have broken bones and other causes of lameness? Absolutely. The point is, you need to react and treat the lame foal as soon as possible. If your foal does have an infected joint and goes untreated for several days, it can have devastating consequences.”

According to Dr. Thompson, waiting around to see if your foal will heal up on his own could be disastrous, leaving a permanently damaged joint. Joint illness or infection, sometimes called septicemia, eats away at a foal’s bones if left untreated.

“Years ago, we saw joint infections as a consequence of the foal not receiving enough colostrum,” Dr. Thompson says. “Today, it is more often to see around 30 days, as a result of an infection somewhere else.”

Pneumonia, diarrhea and umbilical abscess can cause bacteria in the bloodstream to settle in a joint and wreak havoc. Veterinarians might administer antibiotics and/or proceed with joint lavage, where the joint is flushed. Additional procedures, including arthroscopy, are also options.

“Again, react and get treatment for the lame foal as soon as possible,” Dr. Thompson says. “Bring the foal into the barn, take his temperature and call the veterinarian. Early, aggressive treatment can do amazing things. I have foals in my practice that will recover and become world champion athletes, thanks to early treatment.”

– Dry Cough and Fever

Your foal is coughing, and he seems vibrant, but he has a low-grade fever (note: normal body temperature is 99.5 F to 101.5 F). Thirty days is a high-risk time for a foal to develop rhodococcus equi-pneumonia.

If your month-old foal has a dry cough and temperature, run – don’t walk – to the phone and speed dial your veterinarian.

Rhodococcus equi, a soil organism that feeds and multiplies conveniently in manure, enters the foal’s lungs by inhalation.

“When it reaches the foal’s lungs, the bacteria form abscesses, causing severe pneumonia,” Dr. Thompson says.

Historically, R. equi killed most of the foals it afflicted, but thanks to advancements in antibiotics, your foal’s health odds are much improved if he receives early, aggressive treatment from a qualified veterinarian.

To reduce R. equi on your farm, industry professionals recommend disinfecting stalls and walkways often. Also, remove manure from paddocks and stalls frequently, and maintain grass in paddocks. Remember: Organisms multiply rapidly in manure and foals are at a higher risk of inhaling the organism in dusty environments.

Note: The organism was first isolated in 1923 in a foal. Although humans are not at high risk for disease, the first human case was documented in 1967.

– Hole in the Belly Wall

At 30 days, it’s a good time to carefully examine your foal’s umbilical area.

“Sometimes, the umbilicus does not completely heal, and it leaves a hole in the abdominal wall,” Dr. Thompson says. “That defect is known as an umbilical hernia.”

Reach your hand gently under the foal’s belly and focus on the umbilical stump area. Do you feel a lump? If the lump is soft, and you can feel a hole in the abdominal wall, your foal has an umbilical hernia.

Don’t panic – some reports indicate this condition cause a detriment in less than 2 percent of foals. The bad news is, if you ignore then problem, the opening can enlarge if the foal experiences additional trauma to the abdomen. Your foal’s intestines could also become entrapped in the opening, causing an emergency when the intestines become strangulated.

“The usual defect is small – less than half an inch and is an incidental finding,” Dr. Thompson says. It’s also important for your veterinarian to determine how big the hernia is, if there are any abdominal structures inside, and if there is any infection, Dr. Thompson says.

Small holes (less than half an inch) typically heal on their own, or your veterinarian might attach a hernia clamp if it is larger and contains abdominal structures. Some cases require surgical repair. Ask your veterinarian if there is anything you can do to manually reduce the hernia and promote healing.

Courtesy of America’s Horse Daily