Foaling Season Tips

Foaling season is now in full swing and many of us are smiling as we watch happy healthy foals bouncing around the paddocks! Sadly not every foaling will go to plan and we have already had a number of sick foals in our hospital.

Below are a few tips of what to look out for at this exciting but critical time of the year.

The normal gestation period for horses is 340 days but mare’s can foal normally 1-2 weeks (or longer!) either side of this. Each mare tends to have the same gestational length each year and knowing this can help estimate the due date much more accurately for an individual mare. The mare’s udder begins to develop (‘bag up’) roughly 3-4 weeks prior to foaling and will ‘wax up’ (with a waxy deposit appearing on the teats) sometime between a couple of days and a few hours before foaling.

The foaling process itself can be broken down into 3 stages with mares often foaling in the early hours of the morning (much to the despair of those on foal watch!).

Stage 1, prior to delivery, the mare can appear restless, sweaty, urinate frequently, and show mild discomfort or colic. This stage can last up to 12 hours.

Stage 2 begins when the mare’s water breaks and the powerful waves of contractions that deliver the foal begin. The white amniotic sac should be seen within 5 minutes of the water breaking, followed by the front hooves and the muzzle. Stage 2 should last no longer than 20-30 minutes.

Stage 3 is the expulsion of the placenta (“afterbirth”). This should occur within 30 minutes to 3 hours of the foetus being delivered. If the placenta has not been expelled within this time-frame, you should contact a veterinarian immediately, as serious complications can occur in mares that retain their placenta. It is always good to assess the placenta for completeness to ensure none has been left behind as this too can lead to devastating problems for the mare.

For each of the three stages, if there are any signs of severe pain or haemorrhage or the stage lasts longer than normal, the mare should be carefully assessed as it may indicate a serious complication.

Following birth, the foal needs to be monitored closely to ensure that it is healthy and making appropriate progress. A normal foal will sit upright within the first few minutes after birth and should stand within 1 hour. The suckle reflex develops within 20 minutes and most normal foals will successfully nurse within 2 hours. Healthy foals should be bright and inquisitive and interact with the mare and surroundings. It can take more than 24 hours to pass meconium (first manure) and more than 12 hours to urinate for the first time. However, if there are any signs of abdominal discomfort (colic) or abdominal distension, a vet should be called to examine the foal as soon as possible.

When should you call a veterinarian?

A veterinarian should be called before the foal is born if:

  • the mare begins running or leaking milk (“premature lactation”) or the udder develops too early as this can indicate infection within the uterus
  • the mare experiences recurrent colic (abdominal pain) or serious disease during pregnancy
  • there is sudden abdominal enlargement
  • gestation is longer than usual
  • the mare is in poor body condition
  • there is inadequate udder development prior to the expected delivery date

A veterinarian should be called during foaling if:

  • the foal gets stuck in the birth canal (“dystocia”) 
    - This is a real emergency and a veterinarian must be called immediately if the foal is to survive!
  • a “red bag delivery” (premature placental separation) occurs. 
    - In a Red Bag deliver, a red velvety tissue appears at the vulva instead of the normal white amniotic sac. In these situations, the foal must be delivered as quickly as possible so it can start breathing!
  • the foal or foetal fluids are stained with meconium
  • the placenta (“afterbirth”) appears abnormal or hasn’t been passed within 3 hours 
    - You can also weigh the placenta - a placenta weighing more than 11% of the foal’s body weight or less than 8% is abnormal

A veterinarian should be called after foaling if the foal:

  • has not stood within 2 hours
  • has not nursed from the mare within 3 hours
  • shows signs of colic or abdominal discomfort or the abdomen becomes distended
  • has a reduced suckle or seems to have lost interest in nursing from the mare
  • is nursing less frequently or the mare’s udder appears full (squirting milk)
  • is sleeping more than normal
  • appears jaundiced (yellow discolouration of the gums and around the eyes)
  • has swollen joint or becomes lame
  • develops diarrhoea especially if the foal appears depressed or sick
  • has swelling, discharge or pain of the umbilicus (navel)
  • is not gaining weight and, especially, if it is losing weight 
    - Thoroughbred sized foals should gain 1-1.5 kg daily
  • has a immunoglobulin G (IgG) concentration of less than 800 mg/dL at 24 hours of age 
    - Most vets will be able to test this and this is part of the normal post-foal check performed by many veterinarians

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