Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Watch for Signs that Foaling Mare Needs Help

Pet Column for the week of January 13, 2003

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

In most cases, foaling occurs without any human intervention. In fact, it usually goes most smoothly when people observe from a distance. Occasionally, however, a difficult birth, called dystocia, requires human intervention.

Dr. Ted Lock, a veterinarian specializing in reproductive health (theriogenology) at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital, says, "There are many signs that can indicate that a difficult delivery of the foal is at hand. It is important to be familiar with these signs so that the mare can receive proper medical attention."

Straining without progressive delivery of the foal is usually a bad sign. Once the second stage of labor-expulsion of the fetus-has begun, delivery usually occurs within 30 minutes. Prolonged absence of straining once in the second stage of labor has begun is also a sign that something may be amiss, as is the absence of a fetal head and limbs in the pelvis. If the mare is repeatedly shifting position or rolling during the second stage of labor, there may also be a problem.

"The normal presentation of a foal in the birth canal is called an anterior presentation. The foal's front feet and head should be seen first. This is the ideal presentation to escape the confines of the uterus and squeeze past the pelvis to the outside world," says Dr. Lock.

Foals that are very large compared to the size of the pelvis make dystocia more likely. In addition, the occurrence of twins may be a serious problem. Most mares do not carry twins to term, but if they do, serious complications can occur. "The mare is not designed to deliver two foals at once," says Dr. Lock. "If twins are detected early in pregnancy, it is advisable to remove one of the embryos in order to prevent life-threatening complications during delivery."

A foal may be positioned inside the mare's uterus in numerous ways, but sometimes the position can cause problems. For instance, if one of the foal's legs is tucked up underneath its body, the foal will not be able to be delivered without help. In these cases, manual repositioning may enable the birth to continue normally.

Delivery can be accomplished by carefully pushing the foal back into the uterus and placing it into the correct position. Gentle traction is often needed to help the foal through the birth canal. "Care should be taken not to pull too hard, because unnecessary force can damage the reproductive organs, endangering the health and future fertility of the mare," says Dr. Lock.

Sometimes the foal's position in the uterus makes a natural birth impossible. In these cases, surgical removal by cesarean section is indicated.

The best thing to do if you don't have a lot of experience with foaling is to have someone experienced with you during the foaling process in case complications occur. If a complication arises that requires medical attention, contact your local equine veterinarian immediately.