When should you worry about your newborn foal?

You’ve waited 11 months for this day, your mare has finally given birth to her foal, and before your eyes is the new baby you have been dreaming about. Every owner and breeder hopes for a quiet, easy birth without the need for intervention, but sadly, as many as 7% of newborn foals experience a health issue requiring veterinary care.

As a breeder, it is important to know what to look for in the newborn foal, what is considered normal and when should you call for help?

Your newborn foal

Newborn Foals Are Vulnerable
A healthy foal should be cheeky and playful*

Over the past few decades, neonatal medicine in both the human and equine fields have improved in leaps and bounds. Advances in human pediatric medicine have helped improve care in the equine field through sharing of experiences and technology. Since the first Equine Neonatal Intensive Care Unit opened in the US, at the University of Florida in 1982, more and more equine neonatal specialty facilities have opened throughout the states.

Sick foals are amongst the most challenging patients that a veterinarian may treat. New to the world, their immune systems are weak and their energy reserves are minimal, leaving them vulnerable to hypoglycemia, hypothermia, and organ dysfunction. An unwell foal can decline rapidly: aggressive early intervention is key to the foal’s survival. Thanks to improvements in medical technology, such as intravenous fluid therapy and nutritional support, medications, milk feeding via nasogastric tube, and prevention of sepsis with antimicrobials, (techniques devised in the NICU-neonatal intensive care unit-and applied in the field,) survival rates of sick newborns are increasing dramatically.

Risks to the newborn foal

The neonatal period is the most vulnerable time in the life of a horse. Foals are extremely susceptible to disease, lacking the resilience of adult horses. A few hours can make the difference between life and death. Vigilant monitoring is absolutely vital in the first few days of the foal’s life, as a foal can appear robustly healthy at birth but become seriously ill within a few hours.

Some of the conditions that can lead to the newborn becoming ill can include:

  • Failure of passive transfer ( the transfer of antibodies in the colostrum from the mare to her foal)
  • Sepsis ( A major cause of death in foals less than a week old and a result of other neonatal conditions such as premature birth)
  • Diarrhea
  • Neonatal maladjustment syndrome
  • Colic
  • Hypoxic injury (oxygen deprivation in foals)
  • Premature birth
  • Abnormalities
  • Ruptured bladder
  • Respiratory distress
  • Infections including pneumonia


Most of these conditions can be identified by your veterinarian on examination and many will show minor symptoms which will quickly develop to a more life threatening state. But what are the signs you should be looking out for in order to ensure intervention at the earliest possible stage?

Signs to Look Out For With Newborn Foals.

Consulting your veterinarian on the first signs of any illness can help improve survival rates, so what are these signs?

  • Premature Birth - The normal gestation period for foals is 320 to 360 days. A foal is considered premature if its gestational age is less than 320 days. Some foals born prematurely may not be completely developed, they may have difficulty with swallowing, muscle coordination or standing. There is a chance that intervention can help the foal to survive but, if born too early, there may nothing the veterinarian can do and euthanasia may be the kindest decision.
  • Difficulty suckling/lack of interest in nursing – the first thing the foal should show interest in after standing up after birth, is nursing. If the foal is unwell and is not interested in milk, you may notice the foal laying down for longer periods and the mare’s udder filling yet not being emptied, milk may also drip as it overflows.
  • Fever – Take the rectal temperature of the foal, anything over 102°F or under 99°F in a foal requires urgent attention by the veterinarian. It should be noted that only about 50% of foals with infections have fevers, so lack of a fever does not mean there is not infection present.
  • Straining to urinate – this can indicate an infection or ruptured bladder. This is more likely in colts than fillies and may be accompanied by a distended abdomen.
  • Failure to pass meconium – you may notice an absence of meconium (the thick, black first feces) along with straining and lifting the tail. There may be an impaction in the gut which would require quick intervention..
  • Diarrhea – this is a serious threat to the foal. Loss of fluid puts the foal at risk of dehydration which can quickly kill the strongest foal. This may be caused by infection, parasites, consumption of sand, overeating, lactose intolerance, or intestinal abnormalities. Acute diarrhea should not be confused with the mild diarrhea experienced by many foals at around 2 weeks of age known as “foal heat diarrhea.” Some owners believe this is due to the mare coming into season but is actually related to maturity of the foal’s gut.
  • Colic
  • Swollen or cloudy eyes
  • Labored breathing – any signs of respiratory distress could be related to infection, particularly pneumonia but may also indicate pain.
  • Abnormal mucous membrane color
  • Seizures – mild seizures can range from the foal keeping a fixed gaze into the distance and unable to move, through to a full seizure which involves muscle tremors and loss of consciousness. The cause may be anything from nutrient imbalance, lack of oxygen to the brain to genetic disorders.
  • Lameness/Swelling – it is unlikely that this is a result of the mare standing on the foal. Often this can be associated with sepsis and the infection spreading to the joint or growth plate.
  • Swollen or moist umbilicus – this is one of the most probable routes of entry for infection in the foal. Swelling or moisture in the area can indicate the presence of infection.


Unlike your adult horse, you will not know what is normal for your foal. It is always preferable to err on the side of caution. Should you notice any worrying signs in the foal, you should call your veterinarian for advice immediately. It is better to be safe than sorry.

*Image courtesy Of Dollar Photo Club