What you see. The starting point for addressing any equine health related issue is your observation.


Foal or Newborn, Swelling on Lower Belly


The most common problem that results in a protrusion of swelling from the lower belly of a foal is an umbilical hernia. It is a common congenital (genetic) defect most often seen in foals and growing horses. By adulthood most have been surgically corrected or resolved.

An infected umbilicus is usually a firmer, less moveable swelling, but can look similar. Foals with infected umbilicus need immediate veterinary attention.

Urine leakage from a patent or ruptured urachus (tube- part of umbilicus that should close at birth) can leak urine under the skin, causing swelling.

  • Code Red

    Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours
    • If the foal is not nursing or seems depressed, in addition to this sign.
    • If the foal is showing signs of colic pain along with this sign.
    • If the swelling is large, painful or growing rapidly.
  • Code Orange

    Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours
    • If the foal appears otherwise normal, i.e. is active and nursing normally.
    • If the condition does not seem to be causing pain or other problem.

your role


What To Do

If you see lower belly swelling in a foal, start by assessing the foal's general health. Foals with simple umbilical hernia act normal and do not resent gentle pressing of the swelling.

Gently push on the swelling with your fingertips. An umbilical hernia should feel like a fluidy balloon within the swelling and if you push upward, this should slip up into the belly through a break in the belly wall called the hernia ring. Once the sac has slipped up through the ring, you can feel the size of this "hole" in the body wall with your fingertips. Larger holes in the body wall are less likely to resolve on their own and will require surgical closure.

Typically, an umbilical hernia contains bowel or other abdominal tissue in a hernia sac. If bowel tissue becomes entrapped in a hernia, it can be strangled off, a life-threatening emergency. In this case, you would expect the swelling to feel hard and possibly painful. In most cases, the horse or foal with trapped bowel would also show signs of abdominal pain (colic). The risk of bowel entrapment is the reason that umbilical hernias (or any swelling here) should be promptly evaluated by a vet.

Any swelling here should also prompt early communication with your vet, especially if foal is not obviously strong and vigorous.

What Not To Do

Do not take a wait and see approach without first consulting with your vet.

your vet's role

Your vet uses their clinical exam to get a sense of the problem and differentiate hernia from other causes of swelling. If they determine the swelling is a hernia, then considering the age of the foal, and size of the hernia, they will give you treatment options. Ultrasound is very useful in assessing the nature of soft tissue swelling here and elsewhere.
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • When was the foal born?
  • Is the foal active and nursing?
  • Is the foal showing any signs of abdominal pain (colic)?
  • How large is the umbilical swelling?

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP