Spring has finally arrived and with it the first foals of this year's summer crop.
For the anxious owner it can seem like an endless wait although the normal gestation period for most mares is 335 to 340 days. As delivery time approaches the mare's udder becomes more prominent (from two to five weeks prior to delivery). Waxing of the mare's teats begins a few days prior to foaling and these secretions become more opaque and sticky as delivery time approaches. If the udder begins leaking milk or displays vaginal discharge well before her due date you should contact your vet immediately as these can be early warning signs of infection and a possibly compromised pregnancy.
In a normal delivery the foal will be presented with both its forelimbs extended followed by the outstretched head – a sort of "Superman" position. This occurs following rupture of the placenta and the expulsion of a large volume of foetal fluids. Delivery is relatively rapid and normally occurs within 30 to 45 minutes. If labour is prolonged with no sign of the foal emerging, always contact your vet as the foal may be incorrectly positioned and the mare may need some assistance. The placenta should be passed within three hours of delivery. Retention of the placenta can lead to infection and other complications such as laminitis so seek veterinary advice should this occur. You should retain the placenta as your vet will want to examine it for signs of disease and to make sure that it has all been passed. You should also weigh the placenta. It should weigh about 10 per cent of the foal's birth weight. An excessively heavy placenta could indicate infection or congestion.
Your new born foal and the mare should receive a routine examination by a vet within 24 hours of the foal's arrival as early detection of disease could be life-saving.
Care of the new born foal
A healthy foal should be able to stand within an hour of delivery and should be suckling from its mother within two hours. Mares' milk contains colostrum which is packed with vital antibodies (primarily IgG ) which protect the foal against bacterial infections. The foal should take at least one to two pints of colostrum within the first 24 hours of his arrival. Your vet can take a blood test from the foal to ensure that the level of antibodies is sufficient and supplementation can be given if required.
If your foal is unable to stand or suckle, you must seek veterinary attention immediately. Common problems in new borns include; bacterial infections, neonatal maladjustment syndrome – neurological dysfunction associated with lack of oxygen prior to or during delivery.
The umbilical cord stump should be dressed with iodine twice a day for two to three days until it is dry. The foal should pass its first droppings (merconium) within 12 to 24 hours of its arrival. Merconium should be dark brown or black in colour and pasty or pelleted in consistency. Following this, the foal's droppings should be soft and light tan.
Young foals are at risk from a variety of respiratory diseases and scouring (diarrhoea). Watch closely for signs of lethargy and decreased suckling. A healthy foal will consume 15 to 25 per cent of his body weight in milk daily and will gain around 1 to 2lbs daily. Unusually rapid growth spurts or excessive weight gain could indicate an unbalanced diet which could result in metabolic bone disease and other developmental problems. If you are concerned about your foal's growth, consult your vet.
After the first month or so your foal will begin the transition from an "all milk" diet to solid feed. Creep feed should be introduced slowly at a rate of 1lb per 100lbs body weight. The type of feed you choose for your foal will depend on the type and quality of your grazing and what forage you have available. A balanced nutrition program is very important for your foal and your vet will advise you on this.
At birth your foal inherits immediate protection from disease through his mother's colostrum (as long as she is vaccinated). Eventually however the maternal antibodies decline and the foal will require additional protection. Your vet will advise you on what vaccinations are required dependent upon your region and your foal's exposure to risk. Timing of your foal's first vaccination is very important. If the vaccine is administered too early, the mare's colostral antibodies which are present in the foal will prevent an effective immune response to the vaccine.
Foals are more at risk from parasitic infestation than adult horses. The parasite, Strongyloides westeri, can actually be transferred in the mare's milk. Other parasite eggs can be shed onto pasture in the mare's droppings. It is therefore very important to make sure that the mare is wormed shortly after foaling with a suitable broad spectrum product.
Foals are most at risk from ascarid, or roundworms. Roundworms affect the vulnerable immune systems of horses less than 18 months old causing problems ranging from respiratory disease, poor growth, diarrhoea, constipation and potentially fatal colic as the parasites' life cycle progresses. You should worm your foal with a product effective in the treatment of ascarids from six to eight weeks of age. Panacur paste is highly effective against ascarids and is a very safe product for foals. Repeat the treatment at two month intervals during warm weather.
Work with your vet to devise a suitable ongoing worming program for your mare and foal and make sure that a twice yearly worm count is carried out to make sure your parasite control program is effective. As your foal will be growing and gaining weight all the time, always use a weigh tape to make sure you are giving him the correct dose of worming product.
Keep risk to a minimum by managing your grazing. Pick up all droppings frequently and place creep feed and forage in raised containers which are not in contact with the ground to reduce the number of parasite eggs ingested.
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