Health

On a Limb

Watch out for angular limb deformities in young foals.

One of the conditions frequently seen in newborn foals is angular limb deformity, a sideways deviation from normal of a foal's front or hind limbs. ALD has many causes and might be present at birth or develop during the first few weeks of life.

The joints most commonly affected are the knees in the front legs and the hocks in the hind legs, although the fetlocks might also be involved. The knees can be too close together (knock-kneed) or too far apart (bow-legged). Some foals have minor deviations, while other foals might have deviations so severe that the foals are unable to rise and nurse.

Foals born with minimal deformity usually experience spontaneous correction during the first few weeks of life and require no treatment. In other foals, ALD is not self-correcting and can become worse with time. The key is to determine if medical intervention is necessary, what type of intervention to use and when to initiate treatment.

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It is important to realize that if foals with ALD are turned out to pasture without support, permanent damage might occur. Therefore, the mare and foal should be kept in a stall for at least 14 days with light exercise in a small paddock two to three hours a day. The foal's legs should be radiographed every 14 days to ensure that ossification (hardening) of the affected joints is taking place.

Some foals are born with normally ossified bones but with extremely lax collateral ligaments around the joints. In these foals, the joint can be manually straightened. Restriction to a stall and time will usually correct this type of ALD, but external support might be necessary in extreme cases.

The most common cause of ALD in full-term, healthy newborn foals is asynchronous growth of the growth plate. In these foals, the growth plate does not produce bone evenly across its entire width. The leg then grows unevenly and, rather than straightening with time, becomes more deformed. If not present at birth, this condition can develop due to poor conformation that places abnormal stress on the growth plate, overfeeding or imbalanced rations, excessive exercise leading to muscle fatigue and growth plate trauma. The only solution for this type of ALD is surgery.

In some instances, corrective hoof trimming can also effectively treat ALD when used along with stall rest or surgery. The hoof wall of feet that are toeing out should be lowered on the outside, whereas feet that are turning in should be rasped on the inside of the hoof wall. Because foals' hooves are soft, the hoof is rasped gently only two or three times every two weeks to help point the foot in the right direction. This should only be done under the supervision of a veterinarian or experienced farrier, because if done improperly, hoof correction can damage the bone growth plate and make the condition worse.

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ALD, unless severe, will not prevent a foal from leading a normal life, but it can prevent the animal from becoming a performance horse. Rapid assessment and intervention are key.