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

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Little Orphan Annie: Caring for a Motherless Foal


Pet Column for the week of April 28, 2003


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

Spring has arrived, bringing with it foaling season. Horse owners are thrilled to watch their new foals take those first wobbly steps in search of nourishment. But what happens when things go wrong, and a foal is left orphaned?

The first major concern is to make sure the newborn foal begins nursing immediately. The milk a mare produces in the first 24 hours after birth is called colostrum. The colostrum contains important antibodies that the foal needs. Without these antibodies the foal's immune system will be inadequate, and it will have serious trouble fighting off disease.

Dr. Joan Jorgensen, an equine veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, explains, "No antibodies pass through the placenta, so the foal must obtain all its antibodies through the colostrum. It is important to have a veterinarian test antibody levels 12 to 18 hours after birth and again at 24 hours to make sure the antibody transfer was successful."

(In fact, during the first 24 hours of any foal's life, it is extremely important to have a veterinarian examine every system to make sure everything is functioning correctly.)

If a mare dies at birth, ensuring the foal receives adequate colostrum becomes a problem. "Larger breeding operations may have colostrum banks available for situations where the foal is orphaned or a mare is having a problem with her milk production. Colostrum can be stored in a freezer for one year," says Dr. Jorgensen.

If no colostrum is available, commercial oral immunoglobulins that contain the needed antibodies are available. After 24 hours the foal will need intravenous plasma if no colostrum or antibody supplement was given.

During the first week of life, foals need to be fed at least every hour. Ideally a nurse mare can be found to foster the orphan. However, nurse mares can be expensive and may not accept the foal. Fortunately, a variety of equine milk replacers are available. Your veterinarian can recommend one.

"Do not use calf milk replacers, which are often high in sodium. Horses and cows have different digestive systems and do not have the same nutritional needs," advises Dr. Jorgensen.

Bottle-feeding works best with newborns, so the amount of milk ingested can be closely monitored. As soon as possible, teach the foal to drink from a bucket. Supervision of meal times is still important. Foals can tip over the bucket, spilling milk and depriving themselves of nutrition. The bucket needs to be kept clean to minimize exposure to pathogens.

The first few weeks of the foal's life are critical. Once you are over that hump, pellet food can be introduced into the foal's diet.

"It is a myth that orphaned foals do not grow as tall and strong as other foals. Orphaned foals typically do well as long as they are fed well," says Dr. Jorgensen. "But remember that you don't have flexibility of time. It is critical to keep on top of the feeding schedule."

"As orphaned foals grow, the biggest problems are socialization issues. The foals start to think they are human, start following people around, and aren't sure how to interact with other horses," says Dr. Jorgensen.

The solution is to introduce the foal to other horses as soon as possible. Mares who have just foaled are ideal companions for the orphan. The foal can learn to interact with its peers. Do not put the orphaned foal in with other horses unsupervised. Start slow and let the foals get to know each other little by little. Exposing your orphaned foal to other horses early can minimize behavior problems as the foal grows.

With the proper care an orphaned foal can survive and flourish despite a rough start, and you may find that raising an orphaned foal is a tough but extremely rewarding experience.