A report in the January 2008 issue of the University of Kentucky’s Equine Disease Quarterly stated that septicemia was the major cause of death in both foals less than 30 days old (25%) and 30 to 180 days old (21%) at their facility. The next most common cause of death was catastrophic musculoskeletal injuries (e.g. fractures).
Septicemia is a bodywide inflammatory reaction caused by the presence of bacteria or bacterial products circulating in the blood. The interior of the body is normally sterile. Invasion by bacteria or their toxins causes a massive immune system response.
With all the antibiotics at our disposal, it may be shocking that infections are the major preventable cause of death of foals. However, infections can cause rapid death in the young of all species. Part of the reason for this is an immature immune system. Another is that the foal is born with no memory cells in its immune system that can quickly put out antibodies. If early symptoms are missed and treatment delayed, the foal may die.
Symptoms of septicemia include:
• Reduced suckling (always check the mare’s udder several times a day to see if it is distended).
• Depression (foals sleep a lot but should be perky when awake).
• Excessive sleeping (young foals nurse anywhere from 1 to 4 times per hour, plopping down for a nap between feedings).
• Increased respiratory rate.
• Increased/decreased temperature.
• Swollen joints.
Obviously, close monitoring of the foal and of the mare’s udder is an important step to help guarantee early detection. The first 24 hours is particularly critical since this is the time the foal can gain the benefit from preformed IgG antibodies in the dam’s milk. After this 24-hour window of opportunity, IgG levels drop sharply and the foal’s intestinal tract is unable to absorb them.
Losing a foal to septicemia is a scary prospect but largely preventable with close monitoring and good management. Fortunately, the organisms involved in these infections are usually those commonly found on the skin or in the manure/environment and will respond well to antibiotics if the diagnosis is made quickly enough.
• Follow your vet’s advice regarding prefoaling vaccination of the mare.
• If the foal has not gotten to its feet and nursed within 2 hours of birth, call the vet immediately.
• Call the vet if the foal is showing any of the above described symptoms.
• Consider testing the mare’s milk and/or the foal’s blood for IgG. Inexpensive test kits for this are available, such as those from Midlands Bioproducts (www.midlandbio.com, 800-370-6367), but should generally be performed by your vet or other trained personnel for accuracy.
• Make sure the mare has been moved to the turnout and stall location to be used for foaling at least 30 days before her due date. This gives her body a chance to respond to all bacteria in the environment and pass this on to her foal in the colostrum.
• Keep foaling stalls well bedded with clean straw, or foal in clean, frequently picked, grassy paddocks.
• Follow your vet’s recommended protocol for care of the newborn foal’s navel.
• Check the foal carefully for any wounds and treat promptly.
• Avoid moving the mare and foal, or introducing them to other horses whose health status is not certain, as long as possible.