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Foaling Season-Dystocia

Foaling Season

By:  Jeffrey Smith, DVM

Like the maternity ward at the hospital, a newborn healthy foal makes everybody happy.  However, on those rare occasions where the birthing process is not going right, there can be panic and even disaster.  Our intent today is to better prepare would be midwives for horses for those times when assistance is required.

The good news is that most foalings go smoothly, and like horses in the wild, most are uncomplicated.  Unlike most people, the birth of a foal is often “explosive!”  The entire process usually takes less than 25 minutes!  The normal series of events goes like this:

         Stage 1:  Restless, swishing tail, getting up and down, standing alone

         Stage 2:  Water breaks, 1st hoof appears, 2nd hoof appears, nose appears, shoulders delivered, hips delivered.

         Stage 3:  Placenta (afterbirth) delivered.

Most foals are born during the night, and since the mare has the ability to stop her own labor, many foals are born during the few moments that an owner runs off to the bathroom or nods off to sleep.

The key to recognizing a problem is noticing when there is a lack of progress.  Every few minutes there should be some discernable advancement.  We actually want the legs to come out staggered because this allows the shoulders to come through the birth canal smoothly.  Therefore, it is OK to scrub up your arms and hands, lubricate, and reach inside the mare to check if the foal is positioned correctly.  If NOT, or if there is NO progress, call your veterinarian!  While you wait, get the mare up and walk her to prevent labor from progressing.

When the veterinarian arrives, they will be able to tell you how serious the “dystocia” is.  More often than not, the problem is manageable, but there are occasions on which the mare, foal, or both are at high risk of dying.  In the majority of cases, the veterinarian will use a combination of lubrication, sedation, and epidural anesthesia in order to push the foal back inside the mare!  The goal here is to reposition the foal so that it can slip out normally.  This is often easier said than done, but with good skills and good luck, the foal can be saved.

Probably the most problematic deliveries for us have been when we are called out too late (hours or days) and we have to deliver a dead fetus.  When the foal is dead, they cannot “help” deliver themselves.  Moreover, lubrication is poor, and the foal has usually ‘fallen’ back deeply into the uterus.  The uterus has been exhausted, and it too cannot help with the delivery.  In these cases the mare and the foal are often doomed.  On the other hand, most emergency calls that we receive end up with the foal being delivered either as we are speaking to the owner, or just about as we get into our truck!  We love it when that happens!

The story should not end there, however.  Every mare and foal should be examined within 24 hours to avoid and treat post-partum complications.  We routinely administer antibiotics for 3 days to newborns as this prevents almost all infections in the susceptible foals.  We also check for conditions like impacted meconium, retained placenta, torn vagina, failure of passive transfer, and ruptured bladder.  The point is that this is a sensitive period of time, and the mare and foal should be attended to.

Foaling can be a beautiful and life altering experience, but be prepared for complications! Remember during the month of February we are offering a 10% discount on our dental services for all of your animals.
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