Horses and foals are the same animal, but as with most babies, they can show illness and discomfort a little differently.
A behavior frequently overlooked and often seen as cute but is actually a sign of pain, is when a foal rolls onto its back with its legs up like a dog. This behavior may look like your dog while it’s resting comfortably on its bed at home, but in foals it is a sign of a painful/sick foal.
Careful attention to behavioral changes can make a huge difference in keeping your foal healthy. Colic is a general term for abdominal pain. The cause can be anything from diarrhea, gastric ulcers, ruptured bladder or meconium (first feces) impaction.
One of the most common causes in young foals is diarrhea, which can be primary or as a consequence of another illness. Early treatment is essential to prevent complications including dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, loss of protein from the body and bacteria gaining entry to the bloodstream through the foal’s inflamed intestines
Broadly speaking, there are two types of foal diarrhea: infectious and non-infectious. Some causes of infectious diarrhea are Salmonella spp.,Clostridium spp. (usually bloody diarrhea) and Rotavirus. Non-infectious diarrhea can be from “foal heat diarrhea” or nutritional causes. Foal heat diarrhea is usually seen when the mare has her first “heat” following birth of the foal; these foals are usually very bright with no other signs of illness and continue to nurse well. Nutritional causes of diarrhea occur when a foal overindulges in milk or if they have eaten a lot of sand. Remember foals are curious creatures and will nibble on their environment when young.
Gastric ulcers in foals can occur when a foal is stressed during times of change such as transitioning from milk to hay/grain or at weaning. Some signs are poor appetite or nursing for only very short periods of time, teeth grinding, excessive frothy salivation, lying on their back, and diarrhea.
A ruptured bladder can occur at birth if the mare accidentally injures the foal or if a human picks up a foal and puts pressure on the abdomen. (If the foal is carried, you should have your arms around the entire body and not under the belly). This is a serious problem, and the foal will need surgery to repair the bladder. Minimal urination or an increasingly distended abdomen are some clinical signs.
Impaction is also a serious problem. Meconium (first feces) impaction is seen in the first day or two after birth. The foal should be passing all the manure it had produced while in the womb. If you don’t see manure or the foal continues to strain without passing manure they may need an enema. You have to be very careful giving a foal an enema, and they should get only one. Consult your vet before attempting this. Any further straining weeks or months later should be addressed to make sure the foal is nursing enough to keep them hydrated. Older foals should not be given an enema unless recommended by your veterinarian.
If your foal shows signs of colic, call your vet immediately, even just for some advice. Foals need early supportive treatment to replenish fluids and electrolytes from diarrhea and advanced care for ulcers, a ruptured bladder or impactions. Your veterinarian will be able to guide you in treating your sick foal, calling at the first sign of a problem is always better than waiting.
BIO: Dr. Katie Hennessy graduated from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in 2008 with a degree in large animal health and equine medicine. She completed an advanced internship at The Equine Medical Center of Ocala and is currently the owner and practicing veterinarian at Polk Equine. Her expertise ranges from small and exotic creatures to large animals, specializing in equine medicine.