Oxygen Deprivation in Newborn Foals

Oxygen Deprivation in Newborn Foals

Photo: Susan Meilleur

By Kentucky Equine Research

In most cases, mares give birth quickly and without complications. The foal stands and nurses within an hour or two, and a few days later is following the mare around the pasture and snoozing in the sunshine. Sometimes, however, complications just before, during, or after birth can result in a decreased oxygen supply to the foal’s brain. Various terms such as hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy or neonatal maladjustment syndrome have been used to describe the manifestations of oxygen deprivation. Around the barn, managers refer to these foals as wanderers, sleepers, barkers, or dummy foals.

Anything that reduces the amount of oxygen reaching the brain can rapidly affect brain cell function. The problem can be depleted blood flow, normal blood flow with depleted oxygen, or a combination of these factors. One reason for interrupted oxygen supply before birth might be premature separation of the placenta from the uterus. Uterine infection, twin pregnancy, and fescue toxicosis are other risk factors. If the birth is difficult and delivery is delayed, compression of the umbilical cord may reduce the foal’s blood supply. When the umbilical cord is broken soon after delivery, the foal’s heart and lungs must assume circulatory functions that were previously supplied by the mare. Any delay in this process can cause a drop in the amount of oxygen that is delivered to the foal’s brain. When blood supply is restricted and again when it is restored, chemical changes lead to cell death, swelling of brain tissues, and impaired neurologic function. Other organs in the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems are frequently affected if oxygen deprivation is severe or prolonged.

Recognizing Oxygen Deprivation

The various names for this condition are descriptive of an affected foal’s behaviour. Some foals don’t seem to recognize the mare and are unable to nurse. They may wander around the stall, getting stuck in a corner and being unable to find their way out. Others slip into frequent periods of deep sleep, have seizures, or make strange “barking” vocalizations. These signs may be present shortly after birth, but it is also common for a newborn foal to seem completely normal and then begin to exhibit signs in a day or two. Abnormal behaviour that begins as long as a week after birth may be due to an oxygen deficit at the time of foaling.

Newborn foals may be affected by a number of problems, several of which might be mistaken for oxygen deprivation. If the foal “just doesn’t seem right,” any of the following could be the cause of abnormal or depressed behaviour:

  • Infection — Diarrhea from a Salmonella infection and pneumonia caused by Rhodococcus equi frequently plague foals. 
  • Injury — Broken ribs are not uncommon in large foals and shock and pain can lead to unresponsiveness.
  • Hypothermia — While most foals are able to maintain sufficient body temperature, some may need help staying warm. 
  • Poor Nutrition — The mare may not be producing milk or may not be allowing the foal to nurse. 
  • Discomfort — The foal may have ulcers, lameness, internal deformities, or other sources of pain.

mare and foal

With immediate veterinary attention and proper treatment, many foals who experience oxygen deprivation are able to recover within a few days or weeks. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

A thorough veterinary examination is necessary to determine the cause of the foal’s behaviour. To give the foal the best chance of complete recovery, this examination should be done as soon as the owner notices a problem.

Preventing and Minimizing Neurologic Deficits

In a difficult foaling, immediate intervention can make the problem less severe. Foaling managers attending the birth can watch for conditions that may lead to oxygen deprivation. One of the most common is a “red bag” delivery in which the placenta, a red velvety membrane, is the first thing to protrude from the mare’s vulva. In most deliveries the placenta ruptures but remains inside the mare until after the foal is delivered. The appearance of the placenta is a warning that the birth is not proceeding in the normal manner and that the foal is in danger of suffocation. The placenta needs to be torn or carefully cut so that the foal’s nose can be uncovered and cleared of fluid. The thin whitish membrane that normally encloses the foal usually ruptures as the birth progresses, but may also need to be torn away from the muzzle.

Even without other birth complications, the foal may not immediately begin to breathe on its own. Foaling attendants can clear the nostrils by suction or by stroking down the outside of the foal’s face. Rubbing the foal with dry towels can help to trigger breathing, but vigorous rubbing may cause further injury if the foal has broken ribs from a difficult delivery. Mouth-to-nostril resuscitation can be performed until the foal can breathe on its own and a regular heartbeat is confirmed; on a firm surface, extend the foal’s neck, cover one nostril, and breathe into the other nostril every two to three seconds, introducing enough air to see the chest expand.

Treatment and Prognosis

Care is aimed at several goals. One of the most important is making sure the foal is properly nourished, beginning with an adequate supply of colostrum in the first few hours after birth. If the foal can’t nurse, colostrum can be given by nasogastric tube. After its first 6 to 12 hours, the foal can no longer absorb the antibodies contained in colostrum, so this is an immediate concern for foals that have trouble nursing. Following this period, foals may need to have mare’s milk or a milk replacer delivered in small amounts every few hours until they are able to nurse. Intravenous feeding is indicated in some cases.

A second goal is recovery of damaged nerve cells. Veterinary treatment may involve drugs to control seizures, antioxidants such as vitamin E to aid nerve function, and medications to limit swelling of brain tissue.

Administration of oxygen may be necessary, either at the farm or in a veterinary clinic. A recent addition to the list of available treatments is hyperbaric therapy, in which the foal is placed in a pressurized chamber where oxygen is forced into the tissues.

A third priority is keeping foals from developing other health problems. Pressure sores, infections, and loss of body heat must be prevented while the foal builds up strength and recovers neurologic function.

In many cases of oxygen deprivation, affected foals make a complete recovery in the first days or weeks after birth. Prognosis depends on the severity of the condition and the promptness with which treatment is begun.

The best outcome depends on paying careful attention to the newborn foal’s condition and getting immediate veterinary attention if abnormal signs are noticed.

Main Article Photo: Susan Meilleur - Watch carefully during foaling for any signs that may lead to oxygen deprivation, such as a “red bag” delivery, lack of tearing in the membrane that surrounds the foal after birth, or lack of breathing in the foal after birth.

This article was published in the April 2011 issue of Canadian Horse Journal - Central & Atlantic Edition.