In order to understand the problems with sick foals, it is very important to be familiar with the behaviour of a normal healthy foal so one can recognise signs of illness when they occur.

Behaviour of normal foals after birth

Immediately after birth, the normal foal shakes its head a few times and makes floundering movements in its endeavours to sit up or to stand on its feet. These become stronger by the minute and usually within 15 - 20 minutes the foal is looking bright and is sitting in a normal position. Its efforts to stand are usually very shaky at first. A big effort to launch itself on its feet often results in the foal going completely head over heels and landing on the ground again. It gains strength through several attempts, often falling after only a few minutes, but gradually standing for longer periods.

In normal foals all this happens in the first 15 –30 minutes and, provided the foal is obviously getting stronger, there is usually no reason to interfere by lifting or supporting the foal in any way. During these initial struggles the cord has broken off, leaving only a small 3 – 5cm umbilical stump on the foal.

Mare-foal bonding

After the foal has become more balanced on its feet, it will search for the mare’s udder. It is quite important that this contact is established as soon and as firmly as possible, particularly if it is the mare’s first foal. Some mares become alarmed or very upset, trying to bite or kick at the foal when it approaches. This must be corrected very promptly to avoid injury to the foal. The mare should be caught and controlled. Simply hold the mare while the foal approaches and when the foal makes muzzle contact she may settle down without further problems.

More disturbed mares may require holding for longer periods and may have to be twitched to allow the foal to suck. If this is done quietly, it may only be necessary during the first few hours. If this fails to calm the mare, it is necessary to have the mare tranquillised so that she will accept the foal. Occasionally, it may be necessary to blindfold the mare until she accepts the foal sucking and muzzling around her legs.

If the mare has shown animosity towards the foal, you must keep them under close observation for many hours as the mare may revert to rejection of the foal as soon as the restraint is removed. Even the fact that you are present may not stop her attacking the foal.

The first feed

Once the foal is firmly on its feet it should make strong attempts to suck the mare. Fairly recent studies show that they tend to orientate themselves to suck between the mare’s legs, and therefore it is important to make sure the foal’s efforts are concentrated around the back legs and not the front of the mare.

Normal foals have usually had their first drink of milk within 60 minutes of being born. Foals that take longer than this must be kept under close observation, as the foal must obtain its energy from the mare’s milk. It is essential therefore that it drinks as soon as possible after standing. Prolonged walking or wandering without proper intake of colostrum will soon weaken the foal.

Examination of the newborn foal

Once the foal has had sufficient for its need at the initial sucking, it is time to carry out any necessary treatments. Owners, stud masters or veterinary surgeons may perform these, but whoever performs the treatments must be certain of what they are doing.

The foal’s navel should be examined and, if overlong, should be ligated close to the body with sterilized string, and the free portion of the cord is then cut off below the ligature. The stump is treated with strong iodine to hasten drying and aid in the prevention of organisms entering the foal. This is particularly important in preventing the development of abscesses in the navel cord and some types of joint ill that develop because of bacteria gaining entry through the navel cord.

Where mares have been given booster doses of Tetanus toxoid 4 – 6 weeks prior to foaling, there is a high level of antibody against tetanus in the mare’s milk. This gives protection to the foal but only if the foal sucks normally and is capable of absorbing the antibody after it drinks from the mare. Approximately 10% of foals do not receive sufficient antibodies to give adequate protection, and for this reason it is advisable to give any foal that may not have received adequate colostrum a dose of tetanus antitoxin in the first day of life.

Constipation - Has the foal passsed its meconium?

The next step is to make certain that the foal can pass its meconium. This is the faecal material that has accumulated in the foal’s bowel during its last few months in the mare and is usually in the form of hard pellets, which may vary in size and occasionally cause problems by becoming jammed in front of the foal’s pelvis. This causes constipation and the foal commences straining, rolling and exhibiting signs of abdominal pain.

Early treatment with enemas given gently and correctly overcomes most foals’ problems. If the foal’s condition deteriorates so that it stops sucking or is commencing to roll continuously and looks depressed, contact your veterinary surgeon immediately. Early correction usually gives favourable results, whereas prolonged delay increases the foal’s distress and may cause bowel complications leading to rupture of the bowel itself.

There are ready-mixed enema solutions now available that will correct most constipation problems, but be careful with their use and remember that a poor response to your treatment should be taken as an indication that you may require expert help urgently.

The use of antibiotics

Where mares have a history of the foal dying soon after foaling, your veterinary surgeon may advise the use of antibiotics for several days, commencing at birth. The indiscriminate use of antibiotics into all foals is unwise, as normal bacteria have a tendency to develop resistance to those particular antibiotics thus preventing future successful treatment with antibiotics should serious illness occur in your foals.