What is Premature Foal?
Premature foals should weigh 10% of the mother’s weight at birth. This means if the mother weighs 1,500 pounds, the foal should weigh 150 pounds when they are born. They should also have a body temperature between 99 and 102, respiration rate of 60-80 breaths per minute, and heart rate of 40-80 beats per minute. Also, foals should be up on their feet within 45 minutes and standing on their own within one to four hours. Any variation in these parameters are health risks that can be fatal quickly in a foal because of their lower resistance to infections and inadequate immune system. Some foals may be carried to full term and still have premature foal characteristics such as low birth weight and inability to stand or suckle. This is called dysmature foal and can be caused by many factors such as twin births, nutrition deficiencies, or placental insufficiency.
A foal born prior to 320 days of gestation is considered to be a premature foal. However, some mares have a normal gestation rate of 310 days and some as long as 370 days. This can vary quite a bit with each mare. These foals usually have some unique distinctions to them such as domed forehead, low birth weight, and floppy ears. Also, a mature foal should be standing on their feet approximately one to four hours after they are born. Foals born prematurely are susceptible to all sorts of medical complications such as respiratory distress, renal failure, weak muscles and bones, infections, and inability to suckle leading to nutritional problems. If your foal is not able to suckle within four hours of birth, they should be considered to be premature and will have to be taken care of in an intensive care horse hospital.
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Symptoms of Premature Foal in Horses
A premature foal can have many different problems that can vary a great deal depending on the individual situation. The most common symptoms include:
- Born prior to 320 days (this amount varies depending on the mother’s normal gestation time)
- Lower than normal birth weight (less than 10% of mother’s birth weight)
- Soft lips
- Inadequate suckling reflex
- Dark red tongue
- Domed forehead
- Flabby muscle tone
- Low body temperature
- Silky hair coat
- Floppy ears
- Bulging eyes
- Premature foals are born prior to the normal gestation, which is approximately 320 days, but varies a great deal with each mare
- Dysmature foals are those born with immature foal characteristics even if born within the normal length of gestation
Causes of Premature Foal in Horses
- Abnormal placenta issues such as premature placental separation, placentitis, or having twins
- Problems with the fetus like hydroallantois, deformity, malformation, or sepsis caused by bacteria, ehrlichiosis, herpes virus, or EVA
- Illness of the mother such as placentitis, severe injury, chronic illness, or systemic disease
- Early labor
- Premature caesarean section due to sudden medical condition of the mother like fatal neurologic disease, irreparable bone fracture, or severe colic
- Idiopathic (unknown)
Diagnosis of Premature Foal in Horses
Diagnosis of a premature foal is fairly simple but the veterinarian will need to do a complete assessment to gather all of the facts for your foal’s medical records and to determine an APGAR score. This score is based on appearance, pulse, grimace, attitude, and respirations (APGAR). The veterinarian will also examine the mare to see that she is okay and to help determine the cause of the premature foal. Her colostrum, as well as her udder and vulva area will be checked for any type of damage and her vital signs will be recorded.
A complete and thorough physical examination of the foal includes vital signs (temperature, pulse, and respirations), lung sounds, palpation of the abdomen, capillary refill time of the gums, reflexes, eye movements, height, and weight. The veterinarian will check every part of the body, including the ears, eyes, mouth, palate, face, legs, and feet. In addition, a complete blood count (CBC), urinalysis, blood chemistry, and an IgG test for antibody levels will be performed and recorded. Assessment of the foal’s ability to stand and walk will be done followed by digital radiographs (x-rays), and an ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI, if necessary for level of ossification (bone formation).
Treatment of Premature Foal in Horses
The treatment depends on the APGAR score and how your foal is responding. If your foal cannot breathe or eat on its own, a feeding tube, intravenous (IV) fluids, and oxygen is necessary. The veterinarian will likely want to hospitalize your foal for round the clock observation and intensive care.
A foal that cannot suckle or swallow (dysphagic) needs to have a feeding tube to get colostrum and milk for proper nutrients to grow. This is done by inserting a nasogastric tube into the nostril and down the esophagus to the stomach.
Fluids and Oxygen Therapy
An intravenous (IV) line will be placed to administer fluids and electrolytes until the foal is able to drink on its own. Oxygen will be provided via intranasal oxygen and ventilation when needed.
The foal will likely be kept in the hospital until the oxygen, fluids, and feeding tubes are no longer needed. It is important for someone to be able to observe 24 hours a day in case of an emergency.
Recovery of Premature Foal in Horses
Recovery will depend on how early the foal is delivered and how developed they are when delivered. If their vital organs and systems are not developed enough to function on their own, the chance of full recovery is not good. However, with immediate professional attention, and proper care your foal can be up and walking within a few weeks. Be sure to continue with observation after the foal is able to return from the hospital and call the veterinarian with any questions or concerns.