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For a Fostered Foal, There’s Nothing Like a Mother’s Love


Pet Column for the week of August 2, 2010

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

The loss of a mother: a tragic event for any species. Likewise, the loss of an infant: devastating. At the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana this spring, both of these events occurred, leaving a mare without her baby and a foal without a mother.

To Dr. Kate McGovern, a resident in equine internal medicine at the hospital, this tragedy presented an opportunity to learn something new while helping this pair of horses by having the mare act as a foster mother for the orphaned foal.

Several methods are available for the procedure, and doctors first tried a traditional approach: the foal was covered in some of the mare’s bedding and manure so that the foal would smell familiar to the mare. Then the mare was sedated, and attempts were made to allow the foal to nurse from her (hopefully) new mother.

Unfortunately, the mare was not persuaded to accept the foal as her own, and the two were separated to prevent the mare from injuring the foal. Doctors had to find another way to convince this mare to accept the foal.

The next step, then, was to use a more realistic and involved process, called “grafting” as recommended from a hospital in Kentucky. As before, the goal is to achieve a bond between the mare and the foal that would normally occur immediately after birth. According to Dr. McGovern, it is actually “meant to ‘trick’ the mare into thinking she has just given birth.”

In order to do that, the birthing process is simulated using hormones and manual manipulation. For safety, the mare is sedated and restrained. She is then given two hormones, oxytocin and prostaglandin, which are normally released from the brain and uterus, respectively, during the birthing process. The oxytocin promotes the mare/foal bond and the prostaglandin stimulates uterine contractions.

After administration of the drugs, the vagina and cervix are firmly massaged for 15 minutes to simulate the foal’s passage through the birth canal. Fluids released are then rubbed all over the foal so that the mare will recognize the smell as her own, and then the foal is brought to the mare’s head in the hopes that she will accept the new baby.

In this case, the mare immediately lay down, just as one would expect from a mare that had indeed just given birth. However, Dr. McGovern says, “We did not leave the mare and foal unattended for at least the first 12 hours, until we were comfortable that the mare was not going to reject the foal and possibly injure it.”

Fortunately for this foal, a lasting bond formed as a result of the grafting procedure. Dr. McGovern even visited the pair at their farm home a month later. “They were doing wonderfully and had a completely normal mare and foal bond,” she reports.

When asked of her thoughts on the process, Dr. McGovern said, “I was very skeptical beforehand, but we will definitely do this again!”

For more information on grafting or the mare/foal bond, please contact your local equine veterinarian.