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A Star is Born - Equine Foaling 101

A Start is Born - Equine Foaling 101

By Meggie Garvey, DVM

Foaling can be incredibly stressful, but also wonderful!  You’ve waited 11 months for this day to occur.  Knowing what is normal, being prepared, and knowing when to call the vet can make the process go a lot smoother as events occur in rapid succession when your mare foals.  Knowing the breeding date and providing good prenatal care for your mare can make preparations easier.  Generally equine gestation is about 335-345 days but can be shorter or longer depending on the sex of the fetus and time of the year.  Signs that your mare is nearing foaling time are udder development 3-6 weeks prior to foaling, and colostrum or “waxing” appears on the nipples 1-72 hours before foaling.  For those mare that have experienced problems foaling previously we recommend  measuring calcium in mammary secretions as it is very well correlated to when a mare will foal. 

There are 3 stages in equine labor.  Stage 1 lasts around 1 hour and consists of restlessness, walking around, looking at the abdomen, and laying down and getting up several times.  Stage 2 begins with the mare’s water breaking and should only last 15-30 minutes.  If it your mare’s water breaks and no progress is seen over 15 minutes call a vet- it is an emergency! Stage 3 is the passing of the placenta and should take 1-3 hours.  After 3 hours the placenta is considered retained and treatment should be started because this puts the mare at risk for systemic illness, metritis (inflammation of the uterus) and worse-laminitis.  If the placenta isn’t passed within 3 hours your vet will initiate treatment with oxytocin, uterine lavage, and possible antibiotics.  Once the placenta has passed, it is very important to examine it, making sure it is complete and does not contain any abnormalities such as thickening or discoloration.  During stage 3 labor you should tie up the mare’s placenta so she doesn’t step on it and rip it.  The umbilical cord will rupture on its own when the mother or foal rises. 

Dystocias, (or difficult births) are very serious in horses as the time to act to ensure a successful outcome is shorter in the equine species.  Stage 2 labor should only last 15-30 minutes. A birth is considered a dystocia  if:  the water breaks and you don’t see the allantois (white shiny membrane containing foal) starting to emerge within 5 minutes; after 10-15 minutes of strenuous labor there is no progress; or 25-30 minutes of labor and the foal is not yet  born.  A premature placental delivery also known as a “red bag delivery” is seen more commonly in horses and is a life-threatening emergency for the foal.

Once born, normal foals should stand within 1 hour and nurse within 2.  It is very important that they start nursing right away so that they can ingest adequate amounts of colostral immunity.  Colostrum is very important for horses because they get 80% of their antibodies from it and if they don’t receive these, they are predisposed to life-threatening bacterial infections during the first 4-5 months of life.  The foal’s umbilicus should be treated with dilute chlorhexidine solution to help prevent infection for several days.  Every foal should be examined by a veterinarian in the first day after being born so an IgG test can be performed to check antibody levels and ascertain if there are other important health issues present.  If you have any concerns about your late pregnant mare, the foaling process or your beautiful new foal give Alpine Animal Hospital a call.

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