Care of mares and foals in hospital
Mares and foals can be admitted for various reasons and their care can vary depending on the circumstances of their admittance. In this article I am going to discuss some of these different scenarios and the care that is needed for the mare and her foal. Any foal admitted to hospital should be considered at risk of stress and routine administration of anti-ulcer medication, as prescribed by the veterinary surgeon, is a sensible precaution to prevent gastric ulceration. Signs of gastric ulcers in foals include teeth grinding (bruxism) and lying on their backs. All foals admitted to hospital should be weighed twice weekly to ensure adequate growth. The average birth weight of Thoroughbred foal is 50kg, and they should gain 1-1.5kg per day.
Mares admitted for elective surgery
Where possible surgery should be delayed until the foal is weaned but if this can not be avoided, care should be taken to reduce the stress to both parties. The practice’s usual pre-operative starvation of the mare should be carried out but access to water should not be denied as the mare’s fluid requirement is increased when lactating. All pre-op preparation, such as clipping the surgery site and placing the intravenous catheter should be done without separating the pair. The mare and foal should both be taken to the anaesthetic induction area and both animals sedated. Once the mare is heavily sedated the foal can be taken back to a quiet, safe stable. All buckets and moveable fixtures should be removed to prevent injury. Top doors should be kept shut and if possible the stable kept quiet and dark to reduce stimulation of the foal. Most foals cope quite well with short separation but if necessary the sedation can be topped up. As soon as the mare is steady on her feet after the surgery the foal can be taken to her in the induction box and both can be left to settle until the mare is ready to return to the stable. If the mare requires a catheter for drug administration it may be necessary to place a bandage over it to prevent the foal nibbling on it. If the mare’s condition allows, the pair should be taken out several times during the day to a safe area to allow the foal to exercise and the mare to graze. The mare should be fed good quality hay or haylage and a stud or mare and youngstock feed. Hay should be fed from the floor to allow the foal to feed and to avoid tangling in haynets. Access to clean water is also very important; the use of large plastic tubs allows plenty of water to be given and reduces the risk of injury to the foal from knocking over buckets or getting caught in handles. Attention should be paid to the foal to check that it is suckling normally. A foal should suckle several times an hour for short periods and then sleep or be settled in between. If the foal is constantly suckling, seems restless or starts to look tucked up, it may be an indication that the mare’s milk is reducing. The veterinary surgeon may prescribe medication to help with milk production or let down. Anecdotal evidence suggests adding tablespoon of coca powder to the mare’s feed helps with milk production, but fresh grass and succulents will also help. The foal’s suckling behaviour will also encourage milk production but if the milk is still reduced the foal may need supplementing with bottle feeds using a mare’s milk replacer. Care should be taken if the mare is prescribed oral drugs. These should either be syringed in or fed in a high manger that the foal can not access. A separate bucket with feed placed on the floor can distract the foal while the mare is fed.
Foals requiring elective surgery
Foals generally don’t require starving before surgery. You can remove or not give the mare hay or feed on the morning of surgery in case the foal eats it but there is usually no need to restrict suckling. If you do need to restrict the foal from suckling, padded plastic flower pots with holes put in them make very good foal sized muzzles. The mare and foal can both be taken to the induction box and sedated. If the box is big enough the foal can be induced before the mare is removed to reduce the stress for the foal. The foal must be kept warm during surgery using vet-beds, silver blankets, bubble wrap or similar items. Once the foal is on its feet it should be re-united with the mare. The foal may try to suckle before it is fully awake. Although preventing it may cause stress, care should be taken as the foal could aspirate milk if it suckles before it is fully awake.
Foals who lose their dam whilst in hospital will inevitably be stressed. The older the foal the easier it is to deal with as they will have been eating and drinking out of buckets and eating hay from an early age. They should still be given milk, preferably still in a liquid form using commercial mare’s milk replacer, made according to manufacturer’s instructions for the age and size of the foal. If the foal is not likely to be fostered onto another mare, it is not necessary to get the foal on to a bottle as they usually take to drinking out of a bucket quite easily. It is a good idea to wait for signs that the foal is hungry, such as sucking gestures before attempting feeding. The milk should be offered at body temperature. A large shallow bowl such as a washing up bowl or feed skip works best as it is easy to get the foal’s head into. The bowl should be held at the foal’s head level. The foal can be encouraged to suck the side of your thumb and then lower your hand into the milk. Two people may be needed at the beginning but don’t restrain the foal excessively as it will just resist. Once it gets used to the taste and the feeling of being full it will soon learn to drink. This should be repeated little and often until the foal is drinking well. Unless the foal goes for a long period (4-5hours) without taking any liquid you should avoid stomach tubing with feed as this will just delay the foal learning to drink. A record of the foal’s intake should be kept to ensure adequate nutrition. The foal should be offered milk every hour through the day and every 2 hours through the night. If the bucket is left in the stable for the foal to help itself, it should be raised off the floor to make it easier for the foal to reach, and the milk should be changed frequently and the bucket cleaned to prevent bacterial growth as milk is an ideal medium for bacteria. It is more difficult to accurately record intake if this method is used. Youngstock feed and hay should also be offered. Unless the foal is sick it is best for the owners to take it home as soon as it is eating and drinking well. They should be encouraged to get animal, preferably equine, company for the foal and not allow it to become too humanised as this can lead to handling problems in the future. If bottle feeding is chosen, the person feeding should stand alongside the foal facing forwards and tuck the foal’s head under their arm as this mimics the feeling the foal has when suckling the mare’s udder.
Some owners may want to try to foster an orphan foal onto a foster mare. This is obviously the best solution to the problem of an orphan foal but it does take skill and time to get the pair bonded. The National Foaling Bank are experts in this field and can either handle the whole process, co-ordinate finding a foster mare or simply give advice. If the mare has only recently lost the foal and the body is still available it can be skinned and the skin placed over the orphan. It is useful to include the tail as this is what the mare will smell when the foal is suckling. The mare should be hobbled to prevent it kicking and restrained by a competent handler. A small amount of sedation can be given if necessary but is best avoided as it will only delay the process. Nasal decongestant vapour rub or similar strong smelling product can be put on the mare’s nostrils and on the foal. The foal’s bottom should be presented to the mare first for 2 reasons; firstly as mentioned, this is the area the mare will normally smell and nuzzle when the foal is feeding and secondly, should the mare attempt to bite the foal there is less risk of serious damage to the foal. The foal should be lined up next to the mare’s side and left to see if it shows normal suckling behaviour. If the foal has been on the bottle for any period this can be held under the udder from the opposite side to encourage the foal to seek in the right area. The perfect situation is that the foal suckles normally, this helps the process of bonding as the hormones released will relax the mare and as time goes on the foal will take on the ‘right’ smell from the mare’s milk coming through. In our practice we have a large stable with an area that can be separated with a bar so that the mare is held behind the bar and the foal is left free. The mare is kept hobbled and tied up. The pair are kept under close observation until they are fully bonded. The mare can be released from her area several times a day to be taken out to graze but the hobbles are left on. The first signs that bonding is taking place are when the mare shows signs of anxiety when the foal is removed from her sight. When this stage is reached the pair can be turned out for short periods, initially with the mare still hobbled, and then gradually increase time out and remove the hobbles. A successful fostering is very satisfying and you can end up with some strange pairings. If the initial fostering attempt doesn’t work don’t be afraid to try again with a new mare, we had one foal who had 3 ‘mums’ before it all worked out.
National Foaling Bank (01952 811234)
(Published Equine Nursing Journal October 2007)