What is Orphan Foal ?
A foal that is left alone when its dam dies or who is rejected by his mother, or who is unable to nurse due to the dams illness is unable to feed themselves. It is particularly important for newborn foals to get colostrum, either from their mother or from another horse. Unlike the human placenta, the placenta in horses filters out the antibodies during gestation that the foal will need when it is born, so colostrum is the primary source of antibodies for the newborn foal.
Foals that are orphaned or abandoned early in life require special care to grow into happy and healthy horses. Raising young animals can be challenging but is ultimately rewarding.
Symptoms of Orphan Foal in Horses
Some foals with dams who are both alive and attentive may even be considered orphaned, if the dam’s milk production is inadequate or if the quality of the milk is poor. These foals may be harder to identify but some symptoms that may indicate that your young foal is not getting enough nutrition or is in distress include:
- Build up of milk in dam’s udder
- Diarrhea (diarrhea is normal in foals from 7-10 days of age, but should not happen in the first week)
- Distended abdomen
- Loss of muscle tone
- Loss of weight
- Nursing for more than thirty minutes at a time
Some of these situations may be an issue that can be fixed, such as plugged teats in the mare, but if production levels or the quality of the dam’s milk is low, then the foal will require additional nutrition.
This substance is vital for the foal’s immune system, and if the foal is unable to get the first meal or so from their mother, you will need to provide this substance. This can sometimes be milked from the mother in situations where the mother is rejecting the foal, but has suitable milk, or shortly before the death of the dam if that death appears imminent. Many horse breeders have a colostrum bank, a collection of colostrum milked from mares who had enough to spare or who's foaled a stillborn infant. After filtering, colostrum can be safely stored in a freezer for up to two years in a simple freezer bag.
After the foal has ingested enough of the colostrum, milk replacer will be offered to provide the proper nutrition for the growing animal. It is essential that you get a milk replacer designed specifically for horses as multi-species milk, designed for goats, cows, and sheep is not a proper replacement food for a foal.
Causes of Orphan Foal in Horses
A newborn horse can be considered orphaned even if the dam remains alive. An attentive mare who has no milk is unable to care for their foal, requiring human intervention. Foals may be considered orphaned for the following reasons:
- Dam’s milk is poor quality or quantity
- Death of the dam
- Illness or infection in the dam
- Inability to nurse
- Rejection by dam
Diagnosis of Orphan Foal in Horses
Your newborn foal (less than a week old) should be evaluated by your veterinarian, and proper care techniques should be discussed for the upcoming weeks. For the first few days of their lives, foals are not able to regulate their temperature very well. The ideal body temperature for newborn foals is between 99.5 and 102 degrees Fahrenheit and their environment should be adequately protected from drops in temperature or drafts. If the foals temperature dips below 99 degrees it will be considered hypothermic, however, a foal over 103 degrees is hyperthermic which can be dangerous as well. The heart rate and rate of respiration will also be checked at this time to ensure that they are within normal ranges. The normal heart rate for a newborn foal is around 80-100 beats per minute with a respiration rate of around 60-80 breaths per minute, but this drops to 60-80 beats per minute and 20-40 breaths per minute after just a few weeks.
Treatment of Orphan Foal in Horses
The primary concern in the raising of an orphaned foal is feeding. The colostrum in the first four to twelve hours of life is essential to the horse’s future health and well-being. If colostrum cannot be obtained, the foal may need a transfusion of 2-4 liters of blood plasma intravenously for proper immunity. If a nurse mare can be found to nurse the foal this is considered ideal, however sometimes no nurse mare is available to care for the infant, and the responsibility falls to the human caregivers.
In these cases, the newborn will require feedings every two hours; this can be reduced to feedings every six hours when the foal reaches about seven to ten days old. The amount of feed per serving is dependent on the size of the dam; If the mare was only 250 lbs than the appropriate amount to feed the foal would be around a gallon of liquid, however the foals of larger draft horses that weigh around 2000 lbs during adulthood require far more nutrition, around eight gallons of liquid a day. Foals should be weaned from a milk diet at around 4-6 months of age.
Recovery of Orphan Foal in Horses
When most people think of feeding an infant animal, they generally envision bottle feeding the youngster. With equine infants, this is not always the wisest course of action, and if undertaken, it should be undertaken carefully. Bottle feeding can be dangerous for foals if done incorrectly, and care should be taken to ensure that the head is not held too high, with the foal’s nose above its eye levels, when nursing as the milk can run down the trachea and into the lungs, leading to aspiration pneumonia. This can also happen if the horse is bottle fed while laying flat.