Breeding

Postpartum Problems

Be aware of these potential horse-breeding hazards.

A mare and her 36-hour-old foal were presented to the clinic for evaluation. The mare had foaled uneventfully and without assistance had passed her placenta approximately 12 hours later. The foal was a little slow to stand but began to nurse at 5 hours of age. The mare began to look depressed the day after foaling and eventually went off feed and developed an elevated body temperature. The mare and foal were referred to the clinic primarily because of the mare’s condition. Possibilities for her deteriorating condition included the retained placenta, trauma to her reproductive tract (vagina, cervix or uterus) during foaling, a gastrointestinal issue or other factors. Transabdominal ultrasound examination revealed a large fluid-filled uterus and a very small volume of clear fluid in her abdominal cavity. No evidence of trauma was observed during a speculum examination of her vaginal vault and cervix. A manual examination of the inside of her uterus was performed to detect any trauma or tears to the uterus, and none were noted. Since a uterine tear was now considered unlikely, a uterine lavage was performed, and a large volume of cloudy brown fluid was recovered.

The mare received oxytocin to stimulate uterine contractions and assist with the evacuation of fluid. A nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) was given to alleviate discomfort and reduce her elevated body temperature. She was also placed on a five-day course of antibiotic therapy.

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Foal at Risk

In the meantime, the foal was also being examined. During the foal exam, the owner casually indicated that the mare had “run milk” for two days prior to foaling. A newborn foal receives its initial antibodies via passive transfer by nursing the mare’s first milk, or colostrum. In this case, it was likely that the mare had no colostrum left when the foal was born. We subsequently collected a blood sample from the foal and analyzed it for antibody (immunoglobulin or IgG) level. The foal’s IgG level indicated complete failure of passive transfer – little to no antibodies had been ingested and absorbed following nursing. The foal was therefore considered to be at high risk of acquiring a life-threatening infectious disease. A liter of plasma administered through an intravenous (IV) catheter raised the antibody levels, but they still weren’t high enough to be considered protective, so he got a second liter. The mare and foal were discharged after three days in the clinic.

Take-Home Message

Retained placenta and subsequent uterine infection can lead to medical complications in a postpartum mare. In the mare, a placenta is considered to be “retained” if it hasn’t been expelled within three hours after foaling. Leaking colostrum prior to foaling can result in loss of antibodies and failure of passive transfer in a foal. Failure of passive transfer is life-threatening, as foals with low antibody levels are susceptible to infectious diseases.

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Colostrum should be collected from a mare that “runs milk” prior to foaling, stored in a refrigerator and fed to the newborn foal after it stands. Colostrum quality can be tested after foaling using a Brix refractometer or a colostrometer. If poor-quality colostrum is noted, the foal should be supplemented with frozen-thawed colostrum. An IgG test can be performed on a blood sample from the foal to evaluate antibody transfer. Foals less than 24 hours of age can be supplemented with colostrum orally to provide antibodies. Foals more than 24 hours of age require an intravenous transfusion to provide antibodies. Dr. Patrick McCue, a regular columnist for the Journal, is a reproduction specialist at the Equine Reproductive Laboratory at Colorado State University.

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