The Newborn Foal

Baby Steps: Physiology of a Newborn Foal

From the first few minutes of life until about 48 hours, the temperature, pulse, and respiration rates (TPR) of a foal change rapidly.

“Any newborn foal should be examined by a veterinarian within the first 24 to 48 hours of life because there are so many variations of normal and so many potentially serious abnormalities that a layperson might not pick up on,” says Jeremy Campfield, DVM, of Pacific Crest Equine in Exeter, Calif. “It’s just not feasible for someone who only has one or two foals every year to be trained to know that stuff.”

The first neonatal exam should include a blood draw for a complete blood count and assessment of IgG level (which shows if the foal absorbed colostrum and associated antibodies).

A foal’s temperature fluctuates from about 99.5-102ºF. His heart rate initially should be 70-80 beats/minute, and there will be a stepwise increase over the first 12 hours of life to about 150 beats/minute. Over the next 24 to 48 hours, it will drop down and settle at 90-120 beats/minute.

Respiration will be pretty high at first, at 60-80 breaths/minute within the first 30 minutes of life; then it will decrease to 30-40 breaths/minute at rest.

“The first time an owner sees a newborn foal during the first few minutes of life, they often think that the foal is struggling to breathe,” says Brian Fitzgerald, DVM, of F9 Equine Clinic in Columbus, Texas. “Neonatal foals have an increased respiratory rate and a visible chest excursion (inhaling and exhaling) as they breathe in and out. This often appears more dramatic because the ribs are prominent in most neonates. It looks like they are struggling, but it’s pretty normal.

“If the owner is concerned, they can check the foal’s gum color,” he adds, noting that pink is normal. If they appear blue (a sign of decreased oxygen reaching the bloodstream), then the foal should be positioned on its chest, (not on its side), oxygen should be given if available, and a veterinarian should be called.”

If the foal gums are bluish, it should be considered an emergency. While the owner is waiting for the veterinarian to arrive, he or she should place the foal in sternal recumbency (upright with front legs extended out under the head) to allow both lungs to expand more easily and improve oxygen intake. Any horse lying on its side is going to experience decreased expansion of the lung on the “down” side, which veterinarians refer to as the “dependent” lung. So in essence, that dependent lung is not functioning at full capacity and not doing what it is supposed to do, which is transfer oxygen from the air into the bloodstream.

Foals tend to be awkward as they adjust to their first hours outside the womb, and they can startle and twitch at first for no apparent reason. They also appear pretty uncoordinated, but generally all these things are normal and resolve quickly.

“Those newborns are going to sleep a lot,” says Campfield. “Their normal routine is to nurse, walk around the stall for a little while, and they crash out, then repeat. For the first few days it is just a lot of eating and sleeping.”

But after the first few days, foals should be pretty alert and active.

“The No. 1 thing that owners should be concerned about is when the foal is depressed,” notes Joe Bertone, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, professor of equine medicine at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif.

Horses used to be animals of prey. “The best way to look at it is consider who is most likely to be on the dinner plate, and that is the foal,” adds Bertone. “When they are around mom in a controlled environment, they will sleep. But genetically, their makeup is such that when they are awake, if there is any noise, they are really alert. They are usually pretty awake, alive, and nursing.”

A common problem in newborns is colic. Foals tend to show pretty clear signs when they are in discomfort (lying down and rolling violently). You should call your veterinarian immediately if your foal is showing any signs of colic.

“If they are sleepy, depressed, and not nursing, you need to call a veterinarian right away,” Bertone says. “Usually by the time the temperature, respiration, and heart rate are abnormal, things are going bad in a foal.”

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