Horse-Breeding Issues: Colic in Foals
Young foals are susceptible to colic and other gastrointestinal issues.
By Dr. Thomas Lenz in The American Quarter Horse Journal | May 25, 2018
Meconium impaction, ulcers and parasites are among the conditions that can cause colic in foals. At the forefront of these problems are gastrointestinal issues, which can produce severe abdominal pain (colic) and even death. Colic in foals often develops quickly. Because of the foal’s delicate GI system, it is important to take signs of even very mild colic seriously, because it could progress to a life-threatening condition in a few hours.
Symptoms of colic in foals include restlessness and straining to defecate, lying down and getting up frequently, teeth grinding and rolling on the back. As the condition worsens, symptoms might become more violent and frequent. Conditions that cause colic in foals during the first few weeks of life include bacteria- and virus-caused diarrhea, parasites, meconium impaction and ulcers.
Meconium is the first feces that is passed by the foal and can impact in the colon during the first two to three days of life. This condition is especially prevalent in foals that have not nursed well or are weak.
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Signs are a rapid onset, tail flagging and straining to defecate. The foal can become bloated, extremely pained and dehydrated. Diagnosis is made by digital examination of the rectum, ultrasound or abdominal radiographs. The administration of Fleet or mild dish soap enemas is effective early in the course of the disease. However, repeated enemas can damage the foal’s rectal lining and cause electrolyte imbalances. More severe cases might require oral laxatives, pain medication and fluids for rehydration. This condition can usually be prevented by administering a 4-ounce Fleet enema to foals soon after birth.
Diarrhea can be a serious problem in foals, especially diarrhea caused by rotavirus or clostridial bacteria. Clostridial interocolitis usually strikes foals from a few days to 3 months of age. First signs are decreased appetite and depression, with colic, diarrhea that might contain blood, abdominal distention and fever to quickly follow. Affected foals should be hospitalized as soon as possible and treated aggressively with intravenous fluids and antibiotics.
Rotavirus causes a foul-smelling diarrhea, depression, loss of appetite, dehydration and fever. Treatment consists of supportive therapy, such as IV fluids administered to prevent dehydration. Because rotavirus is a virus, antibiotics are not effective and should not be administered. Rotavirus can be prevented by vaccinating broodmares during the eighth, ninth and 10th months of gestation.
After a disease-caused diarrhea outbreak, stalls and equipment should be disinfected with a 10 percent bleach solution. Because most foals experience “foal heat” diarrhea between four and 14 days of life, it is important to differentiate it from the more severe, infectious diarrhea. This can usually easily be done by monitoring the foal’s rectal temperature, which remains normal throughout foal heat diarrhea. The normal rectal temperature for a newborn foal is around 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Foals are usually not severely affected by parasites until weaning or older. However, threadworms (Strongyloides westerni) or roundworms (Parascaris equorum) can produce clinical disease in foals during the first few weeks of life. Both disrupt the health of the foal’s intestinal tract and decrease the foal’s ability to absorb nutrients.
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Threadworms can be shed in the mare’s milk and roundworms in the mare’s stool. Both can be ingested by foals early in his life. To prevent parasite infestation in the foal, ensure that a well-planned parasite program is in place. This should include deworming the mare two or three days before the mare foals.
GI diseases in foals, especially those that cause inflammation of the intestinal tract or diarrhea, is often accompanied by gastric (stomach) or duodenal (small intestine) ulcers. Foals under stress or being treated for intestinal disease should have their upper GI tract examined for ulcers or be placed prophylactically on ulcer-prevention medication, such as Ulcergard.
It is critical that you monitor your foal’s rectal temperature and assess his overall attitude daily. Additionally, you should act quickly if you observe appetite loss, depression, fever or diarrhea in your foal. Waiting until tomorrow to see whether the foal improves could be a serious, even fatal, mistake. Early intervention and a visit by your veterinarian can prevent a mild condition from becoming life-threatening.