The “foaling season” in North America is generally thought, by many horsemen, to start January 1 and proceed through the last day of June. With this in mind, by the time you read this article, many of you may have already experienced one or more of the three problems I am going to discuss. Most of the time, all goes well. The foal and mare do fine and everyone involved is relieved and happy. This scenario is ideal but things do not always work out this way. Problems can arise from the moment the foal is born until it is weaned and these situations must be quickly dealt with when they occur.
In my experience, there are three “problems” or “situations” which are fairly common and can occur in the foal soon after it is born. They are as follows:
• ONE – The newborn foal which does not breathe.
• TWO – The mare that will “own” the foal but will not allow it to nurse.
• THREE – The “shaker” or “limber neck” foal.
Let’s discuss them in the order they are listed and take number ONE first, “the newborn foal which does not breathe.”
Naturally, someone must be present at the time the foal is born. I have been an extremely strong advocate of that practice. It costs a lot of money to breed and properly care for a mare and prepare her to deliver a good foal. Why then would no one be present when she gets ready to deliver? Your “not being there” puts the mare's and foal's lives in jeopardy. Sure, everything will go well most of the time, but what if it does not? I don’t have to tell you the answer but by not “being there,” you certainly can lose the foal and probably the mare as well.
Whoever is present, at the birth, should clean the mucous from the nostrils and mouth of the foal, as well as remove any portion of afterbirth which may be over the newborn’s head or nose. This should be done as the foal is actually being born.
The assistant should also come prepared with a good-sized piece of burlap, such as a burlap grain sack, which has been cleaned and washed, or a “turkish towel.”
As soon as the foal’s umbilical cord enters into the pelvis of the mare, the newborn will attempt to breathe. Usually at this time the mare will expel the foal, but not always. If the foal is expelled, rub it briskly with the burlap or towel. Use the palm of your hand and “slap” the side of its face. These actions will stimulate the animal to shake its head and breathe.
What do you do next if you have slapped and briskly rubbed the live foal but it has not taken a breath? You should have come prepared with a bottle of Dopram-V (Fort Dodge Laboratories) and a 3 cc. plastic syringe with several 1- inch 20 gauge needles. Under these conditions, in the foal, I will inject 1- cc of Dopram-V into the muscle at the bottom of its tongue. Just pull the tongue out of the mouth and inject the drug into the bottom of the tongue about halfway down its length. Keep rubbing and slapping the patient and push on its chest. If its heart is still beating, it will begin to breathe.
I often repeat the same dose of Dopram-V, into the same area, in a few minutes. This drug will initiate respiration in foals, calves, piglets, puppies, kittens and other neonates which are alive but not breathing. I have used it many times in these newborn animals to start respiration and consequently saved their lives.
How often have you heard someone say “the foal was born dead because it had a piece of afterbirth over its head.” In most cases, that statement is not correct. The foal was probably born alive but no one was present to remove the obstruction of the airway.
The number TWO situation occurs rather frequently and involves the mare who delivers a healthy foal but will not allow it to nurse. This mare will “own” the foal but when the newborn attempts to nurse, the mare will not allow it to do so. When the foal’s nose touches the udder, the mare will squeal, kick and turn away from it.
Researchers have determined that the foal should receive the colostrum or “first milk” sometime during the first eight hours of its life–the sooner the better!!
To remedy this situation, the first thing you should do is examine the mare’s udder. The mare will probably have to be “twitched” or confined in a stock to facilitate this procedure since your touching the udder will illicit the same response as the foal experienced when it attempted to nurse.
If the mare does not respond favorably to the application of a twitch and a stock is not available, an I.V. dose of either Xylazine or Butorphanol Tartrate should render her agreeable to the examination.
Palpation of the udder of these mares will often reveal that it is swollen, hard and hot to the touch, thus painful when handled. Many times the two teats will appear to be small and short in length due to the udder edema and swelling. Under these circumstances you will have to milk the mare to provide the colostrum for the foal and to reduce the swelling of the udder. There are two methods available to accomplish the job. Either will work equally well.
First you should give the mare a dose of oxytocin–4cc is what I give to a draft mare 1,800 lbs. and up. Give the oxytocin in the muscle of the rump. Next, procure for yourself a large coffee mug with a big handle which can be securely held. Using your thumb and index finger of your other hand you can “strip milk” the mare, the milk going into the cup. Get all of the milk you can from the udder.
The other method is similar but much easier on the mare’s udder and, I might add, on yourself. Give the oxytocin shot and milk the mare using a human breast pump. These pumps are very simple, work extremely well and can be purchased at almost any drugstore for a reasonable price. Save the milk, of course, in a jar or bowl.
For years I have used the readily-available human breast pump. It works extremely well and is relatively inexpensive. Every horse farm can come up with a container to hold the milk and a plastic syringe or lamb nipple and pop bottle to deliver it to the foal. A tip: Use a plastic pop bottle topped with a lamb nipple, the latter having the holes enlarged at the end of the nipple. By squeezing the bottle, more milk can be forced through the nipple when the foal attempts to nurse on it. Get prepared! You may need the equipment should the problem arise.
After the mare has been milked, her milk can be given to the foal via a bottle equipped with a lamb nipple or simply deliver it slowly into the animal’s mouth using an ordinary 10 or 15 cc plastic syringe.
If the mare is milked one time, this is often sufficient to remove enough swelling from her udder so that she will allow the foal to nurse. If this is not the case, after two hours, repeat the procedure again. Do not give another dose of oxytocin this time.
It has been my experience that two milkings will remove enough swelling and pain from the udder that the mare will allow the foal to nurse.
Now, number THREE, the “shaker” or “limber neck” foal. This condition of foals is infectious in nature and can affect foals from a few days to several months of age. The disease in foals appears to result from the type B toxin which is produced by the spore-forming Clostridium botulinum organism. The condition is officially known as Botulism. This syndrome in foals is also referred to as toxicoinfectious botulism.
A similar condition is known to occur in human infants that have been fed honey contaminated with botulism spores. Most commercial honey containers will have a label which will read “do not feed to infants under one year of age.” So the human baby and foal have a disease syndrome in common.
Adult humans, who have a much higher immunity to the botulism toxin than children under one year, can also sicken and die if the toxin is ingested in sufficient quantities. Usually, the human adult contracts the disease by eating spoiled canned foods or meat.
The bird family is also very susceptible to the effects of the toxin. Wild ducks and geese have been known to die in large numbers after ingesting the toxin which was produced by the growth of the bacteria on their forage or food supply. Domestic chickens will develop the disease if fed moldy spoiled feed in which the botulism organism is growing. These birds, when sick, often exhibit signs of a paralyzed neck with their heads unable to rise, thus having the term “limber neck” applied to the condition.
An interesting sideline is that the vulture family is highly resistant to botulism. Therefore they can eat all sorts of decaying carrion without contracting the disease, even though the animal they are feeding upon has died of botulism.
In the case of the foal, the source of infection seems to be the type B toxin found in spores contaminating the soil. These spores can live there for years and proliferate in the intestinal tract when they are ingested by the foal.
One study revealed that, “94% of soil samples taken from farms that previously had foals with botulism contained the type B neurotoxin spores.”
This disease is endemic on farms in northeastern and mid-Atlantic states but is also found occurring in other areas of the U.S.
Foals in the early stages of the disease may exhibit symptoms of colic followed by muscle tremors and difficulty in eating and swallowing. Often the tongue will be seen protruding from the mouth and the animal will not be able to return it to its normal position. Eyelids will droop and the pupils of the eyes will be dilated and do not contract when exposed to a bright light.
The affected foal will exhibit tremors, muscle weakness and may collapse and die of respiratory paralysis in less than 24 hours. The tremors will often progress until the victim is shaking as if it was very cold. This symptom accounts for the layman's term for the disease: “shaker foal.” Foals may also be found dead having shown no symptoms of botulism.
The treatment of botulism is expensive, time and labor-intensive and the prognosis is very poor. However, botulism is entirely a preventable disease. In areas where the disease occurs, all pregnant mares should be vaccinated as well as the foals, weanlings and yearlings. Foals should be checked for passive transfer of immunity from the vaccinated dams after they have received the colostrum from the mares. If maternal immunity has lapsed or is non-existent, appropriate steps should be taken to provide immune bodies to the foal.
The diagnosis, treatment and preventive vaccination for botulism should be left in the hands of a competent veterinarian. If you have a foal that suddenly and unexpectedly dies, you should have it checked out by a veterinarian or veterinary laboratory immediately. This may just save the rest of your foal crop!
Now that you know about these three conditions, get prepared to deal with them. Who knows, you may encounter one of these problems this very foaling season!