In the equine world, welcoming a healthy foal can be a challenge when the mare or the foal has health problems. Fortunately, at Virginia Tech's Marion DuPont Scott Equine Medical Center, expert faculty and staff have experience in helping achieve a good birthing outcome as well as an improved start in life for the foal.

“Our faculty who specialize in internal medicine typically care for 75 to 85 critically ill neonatal foals per year,” said Dr. Martin Furr, professor of medicine and Adelaide C. Riggs Chair in Equine Medicine at the center. “Their extensive clinical skills come not only from many years of hands-on experience in equine neonatology, but also from their years of teaching specific techniques to other veterinarians at continuing education events,” he added. “I think the experience developed by the [equine medical center] faculty over the years will be invaluable for the high-risk mares and sick foals that will be treated here this season.”

The pregnant mare can have a number of possible health issues that affect her foal. These include uterine or blood infections, problems with the placenta or umbilical cord, or if she is carrying twins. And foals can get off to a rough start if they are premature, if they have neonatal sepsis (an infection), hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (brain damage resulting from a lack of oxygen — also known as “dummy foal”), heart problems, or diarrhea.

The first 30 days of life for a foal can be especially fraught with potential health problems because, during this time, they have a heightened susceptibility to bacteria and other dangers commonly found in their everyday surroundings.

Right now — and every year between January and June — mares and foals with health problems are brought to the equine medical center where the hospital’s experts provide a myriad of treatments that help return them to full health. And, whether it’s the mare or the foal — or both — suffering from a health issue, they normally come to the center together. Mares and foals are typically kept in the same stall; this practice is both a convenience for the owner and a benefit to the patients.

“The challenge of working with these foals is that they often have diseases that involve several organs,” said Furr. “When they arrive at the hospital, they are first examined by our internal medicine team, all of whom specialize in the physiologic interaction of the horse’s internal systems. Throughout the foal’s treatment, these board certified experts implement and oversee the care plan, along with help from residents, interns, and nurses,” he said.

Additional help for foals comes from the attention they get from a caring group of volunteers who participate in the Foal Watch program, which has been in place at the equine medical center for 14 years. This program matches volunteers with cases requiring 24-hour attention; participants in the program sit with sick patients for assigned periods of time in order to help support the foals and keep them from becoming entangled in the many intravenous lines and tubes which may be in use. Volunteers also act as “nurses’ aides” by being an extra set of eyes, ears, and helping hands to the veterinary nurses who administer the treatments.

This round-the-clock supervision from doctors, nurses, and volunteers provides the extra level of monitoring that the foals need to make sure that —given their weakened state — they avoid other complications. All of the caregivers carefully monitor the foals to see that they do not develop sores, eye infections, or imbalances in their blood chemistry.

The task of bringing a sick foal back to health can be extremely challenging and demanding, but everyone involved in the process finds much fulfillment in the endeavor. Experts at the Equine Medical Center say that they successfully discharge about 80% of neonates with serious illnesses from the hospital.

“When a foal is finally able to nurse, or when it takes its first steps — well, that makes it all worthwhile,” said Furr. “When we see foals recover from being so sick and vulnerable, it’s very gratifying. While not every patient recovers, we take great joy in seeing the ones who do go home happy and healthy.”

IMAGE INFORMATION: At Virginia Tech's Marion DuPont Scott Equine Medical Center, expert faculty and staff have experience in helping achieve a good birthing outcome as well as an improved start in life for foals.

Share this story