Horse Side Vet Guide ®

Equine Health Resource

Newborn Foal, Fails to Stand or Nurse

Code Red - Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours

Code Red - Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours

    For a foal to attach and ingest its mother’s milk, it must be strong enough to stand steadily and agile enough to maneuver into position. It must have have the mental strength to locate the udder and teats. It must have the oral dexterity to grasp the nipple, have a strong suckle reflex, and be able to swallow milk effectively.

    Generally, a normal foal should be up and nursing within one and a half hours after birth. Many are up and nursing in 30 minutes.

    If a foal appears weak and is not standing up and nursing within this time frame, something is wrong and you need to call your vet.

    Problems with any of these components results in a foal that cannot ingest the first milk that contains vital antibodies (colostrum). This failure of passive transfer of antibodies exposes the newborn to fatal infection. Failure of a newborn to be up and nursing in the normal time frame (2 hours) is always an emergency.

    If your foal is able to stand up on their own but seems slow to attach, it is usually best to just leave them alone for an hour or two to work it out. If you do try to assist, only gently cradle their chest and rear and provide a “loose cage” for the foal to stand within. You should not aggressively intervene or attempt to forcibly hold the foal up to the udder. It almost never works.

    If attempts at helping the foal to nurse are not successful in 5 minutes, you should stop and leave the pair alone until your vet arrives. Well-meaning horse owners may cause more problems than they solve by interfering inappropriately with this process.

    Your vet ensures the foal gets the antibodies it needs, often by passing a nasogastric tube into the stomach and force feeding colostrum harvested from the mare. They examine the foal, looking for clues as to why the foal is weak. In some cases, we treat proactively to help prevent neonatal septicemia (bacterial infection) because this is such a common and devastating problem.

    Helpful Terms & Topics in HSVGWritten, Reviewed or Shared by Experts in Equine Health

    Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP


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