Raising And Care Of Orphan Foals



Raising And Care Of Orphan Foals 24 October, 2011
– Dr Sarah Seitz

The birth of a long-awaited foal is an exciting occasion. But what if something goes wrong – the mare gets sick, or doesn’t produce any milk, or perhaps she dies. This article will discuss some of the options/considerations for caring and feeding of orphan foals.

The dilemma of raising an orphan foal can be a very time-consuming ordeal. The mare can die for some reason (colic, uterine hemorrhage), or the mare might fail to produce sufficient milk for the foal. If a foal is orphaned at birth, it is imperative that the foal receive adequate colostrum. As you already know, colostrum if the “first milk” that a foal receives, and is rich in antibodies (particularly IgG’s) that will protect the foal from disease for the first 4 – 6 weeks of its life while its immune system develops. Foals are only able to absorb these antibodies during the first 12 hours of their life, so colostrum must be administered during this time. If colostrum is available, the newborn foal needs about 250 ml of colostrum every hour for the first six hours, then free-choice every one to two hours. It is a good idea to have a colostrum bank on the farm (frozen colostrum for mares with excess) so that there will always some available.

If, for some reason, the foal does not receive colostrum in the first 12 hours, ask your veterinarian to administer intravenous plasma. While this might seem like an inconvenience and an extra expense, plasma is rich in protective antibodies that will be delivered directly into the blood stream of your foal. This will protect against many diseases and sepsis. The foal then should be tested by your veterinarian at 18-24 hours of age to determine if it has had adequate absorption of antibodies (IgG levels should be greater than 800mg/dL. Now, how do we get the foal to drink?

Nurse Mares

If a foal has been orphaned, one of the best options is to provide the foal with a nurse mare. The orphaned foal is fostered onto another mare which has lost her foal, or had her own foal weaned. Once the foal is successfully fostered onto a nurse mare, the foal has an ever-ready food source and he/she will be socialized properly. The fostering process should not be attempted without an experienced person to assist, since often the mare must be sedated and restrained to prevent injury to the foal. Two people are needed at all times while introducing the mare and foal – one to restrain the mare and one to handle and guide the foal. The mare and foal should not be left alone until the mare has fully accepted the foal. Acceptance of the foal can take up to three days, but usually occurs within 12 hours.

Bottle Or Bucket Feeding

Another option is bottle feeding or bucket feeding the foal. If the foal has never nursed from the mare, it usually will be quite willing to nurse from a bottle. Lamb nipples work well because they closely resemble a mare’s teat. If these are not available, teats designed for human babies can be used. Calf nipples usually are too big for foals to nurse effectively. Ensure the hole in the nipple is not too large – when the bottle is turned upside down, milk should not flow out of the nipple; otherwise it might predispose the foal to aspiration pneumonia. To simulate a natural position for nursing, stand with your back to the foal and hold the foal’s nose underneath your arm. Then gently insert the nipple into the foal’s mouth (make sure it is over the tongue). Do not hold the bottle above the foal’s head as this position can make it very easy for foals to aspirate milk.

Healthy foals usually will drink only until they are full, so the foal should be allowed to drink free choice after it has consumed colostrum in the first 24 hours. It also is a good idea to record the amount of milk consumed at every feeding, especially in the first few weeks of life, since this can help alert you to a decreasing appetite or ensuing illness. Remember to clean the bottles and nipples after each use.

It is relatively easy to teach a foal to feed from a bucket, and is less time consuming. Place some milk on your fingers and put your fingers into the foal’s mouth to stimulate the suckle reflex. With your fingers still in the foal’s mouth, lower your fingers into a bucket of warm milk. Very quickly, the foal will catch on and will drink out of a bucket. With this method of feeding, a bucket of mare’s milk or milk replacer can be left in the foal’s stable or paddock and changed every 6 to 12 hours. The bucket or pail should be hung at chest level for the foal to drink, and it should be cleaned every time the milk is changed. Remember, all foals should also have access to fresh water at all times.

What to Feed

Mare’s milk is the perfect solution, as it alone matches the nutrient needs of the foal. However, few breeding farms have enough milk stored to feed a foal for more than a few weeks. Cow’s milk and goat’s milk both contain more fat than mare’s milk, and cow’s milk contains insufficient dextrose (sugar). Therefore, if cow’s milk is used, add one teaspoon of honey to every 500ml of milk. Commercial milk replacers are a convenient and very acceptable alternative to mare’s milk. Several foal formulations are available, but the brand you choose should contain about 15% fat and 22% crude protein, so check the label before purchasing. A side effect of using milk replacers is gastrointestinal upset. Some foals will develop diarrhoea when replacers first are used. If this should happen, dilute the milk replacer with water or try a different brand. If the diarrhoea persists for more than one day, then your veterinarian should evaluate the foal and proper treatment can be instituted. Other foals might develop mild bloat from the milk replacer. If this occurs, discontinue feeding for a few hours, and then feed a more diluted formulation. Solid feed can be introduced when the foal is about one month old. Some grain or milk replacer pellets also can be introduced at this time. The grain or pellet should have a protein content of 16-18%. A good general rule of thumb for feeding is 500 grams of feed for each month of age until six months of age, or 2.5 – 3 kgs of feed. Foals can be weaned from milk replacers at three to four months of age if adequate grass or hay and grain are available.

How Much and How Often To Feed

A healthy newborn foal will nurse from its dam about seven times in one hour. This number decreases as the foal gets older. Therefore frequent feedings are most compatible with the foal’s digestive system. Foals require about 21-25% of their body weight in milk per day (a 75 kg foal will need about 19 litres of milk per day). The ideal approach is free-choice feeding of milk, which is most easily achieved with the bucket feeding method. With bottle feeding, the newborn foal will need to nurse every hour for the first week of life, then this can decrease to every two to three hours after the first week. The problems arise when the foal is ill and is not consuming enough milk. If this happens, your veterinarian should be notified and force feeding (via a nasogastric tube) must be instituted. Foals also should gain about one to two kilograms of body weight per day. Contact your veterinarian if you are unsure if your foal is consuming enough milk or is not growing appropriately.

Special Problems of Orphans

Raising a foal is a time-consuming job. One main problem with humans raising foals is that the foal will identify with humans, rather than with other horses. This might be cute when the foal is a newborn, but it presents its own set of problems as the foal gets older. Foals raised by people without contact with other horses have been shown to fear and avoid other horses later in life. Orphan foals also will nurse themselves, other foals, or other horses – male or female. These problems can be eliminated by raising the foals with another horse or pony as a role model.

Raising an orphan foal can be challenging, but it can result in a healthy, well-adjusted foal if done correctly.

Sarah Seitz was born in Zimbabwe and moved to South Africa when she was 10 years old. After attending high school at St Andrew’s in Johannesburg, she worked for her father for several years doing wildlife conservation and breeding endangered species. After that, she was introduced to the illustrious world of thoroughbred breeding and racing when she was employed to manage a thoroughbred stud farm for four years. This stud has produced several notable winners in its time, including a Durban July winner.

She found herself really enjoying the veterinary aspect of equine management and breeding, so decided to come the USA to study Veterinary Medicine. Far from home and lots of paperwork later, she completed her undergraduate BSc degree at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and she is currently in her final year of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. Sarah’s primary veterinary interest is large animal medicine and theriogenology. Sarah also enjoys volunteer work and has traveled to several countries including India, Nicaragua and Ecuador to provide free veterinary services to underdeveloped communities.


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