Equine Wellness: Veterinarian Perspectives from the Birthing Barn

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Five Common Signs of Trouble

By Tony Hawkins, DVM, Valley Vet Supply Technical Service Veterinarian

Ideally, labor goes off without a hitch, and you will have a healthy foal on the ground within about an hour after the labor process starts. Long before this point, it’s important to have a relationship established with your veterinarian and their contact information handy. 

Here are five common signs of trouble to watch for in foaling. Be sure and phone your veterinarian right away if you need immediate assistance with anything you’re uncomfortable performing yourself or if things aren’t progressing as they should. 

1. You don’t see what you should see

Horses should come into the world the way a diver dives into water. Normal presentation is with the foal’s front legs forward and somewhat together, with the head propped down in between their front legs. You should see two hooves and they should be pointed down towards the ground. 

If you’re seeing progress but only one foot is coming out, that probably means that the elbow or the shoulder is getting caught and it’s not going to be able to come out on its own. If this is the case, you’ll need to try to help provide some traction to get that second leg out. 

Trouble is on the horizon if you see hooves that are pointed upward or even a tail—anything that doesn’t resemble normal presentation. In this scenario, that horse needs to be examined by a veterinarian immediately. 

2. Things aren’t progressing correctly. 

If the foal is presenting correctly, but things are going too slowly, then you need to examine the mare. A general guideline for most species is 30 minutes. If you’re not seeing any noticeable improvement or advancement within that 30-minute timeframe, you need to have a veterinarian examine them, see what’s going on, and maybe even help deliver the foal. 

About 45 minutes to an hour is the average time for a delivery. The main thing here is making sure they continue to make noticeable progress.

3. The foal won’t nurse

If the foal doesn’t nurse within four hours of being born, we might have to tube them to get colostrum into their system. When tubing, keep in mind that the windpipe and esophagus are next to each other; the esophagus is on the left side of the throat. To make sure it’s going into the esophagus, slowly pass the tube to avoid any damage—never force it —and reach along the outside of the neck and feel for it to pass before administering the colostrum replacer. 

Keep in mind, there are colostrum supplements and colostrum replacers. There is a difference, and it’s a good idea to have both on hand in case of circumstances like this. Colostrum replacers have roughly double the level of antibodies in them, compared with colostrum supplements. Colostrum products come from hyper-immunized animals, and they don’t immunize goats, cattle, and horses against the same disease risks. Therefore, it’s important to choose a species-specific colostrum replacer or serum replacement. 

4. The momma rejects the baby. 

There’s a slim likelihood that mother will reject baby. If she does, do your best to keep working with her and helping the foal to nurse. It may take a couple weeks helping to facilitate that nursing, which can certainly be frustrating and isn’t fun, but as long as you keep working with the mare and helping the foal to nurse, it’s pretty likely the mare will end up accepting the foal. 

5. An Umbilical Cord Infection Occurs

Umbilical cord infections occur when bacteria are picked up in the environment. It’s important to use iodine for disinfecting the umbilical stump, and the easiest way I have found to do this is to use a spray bottle instead of using a cup and dipping it. 

It’s not recommended to cut the cord, because those vessels have to pull apart and stretch to contract down. If we cut it, then we can have some bleeding issues. Typically, the cord falls off on its own. 

Now, there’s some debate on whether to clamp or tie off the cord. My opinion on it is, if you see the animal born and you can immediately disinfect it, it’s a good idea to tie off the umbilical stump. If you’re unable to do it within the first three to four hours of life, then don’t do it. This is because if there’s any contamination up there, you’re going to trap it in, which increases infection risk.  

I hope that time in the birthing barn is uneventful, and if not, that this information helps you and your animals should trouble ever present itself. 

About the Author

Valley Vet Supply Technical Service Veterinarian Tony Hawkins, DVM attended Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. In addition to his role on the Technical Service team at Valley Vet Supply, Dr. Hawkins owns a mixed-practice veterinary clinic in Northeast Kansas and is treasured by the community for his care across species. He is greatly involved in cattle health, including processing and obstetrical work, as well as providing hands-on care for horses and pets through wellness appointments and surgery.

Valley Vet Supply was founded in 1985 by veterinarians to provide customers with the very best animal health solutions. Valley Vet Supply serves equine, pet and livestock owners with thousands of products and medications. With an in-house pharmacy that is licensed in all 50 states and verified through the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, Valley Vet Supply is the dedicated source for all things horse, livestock and pet. For more information, visit ValleyVet.com.

See this article in the May/June 2023 online edition:

Colorado Horse Source Magazine’s May/June 2023 Issue is HERE!

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