July 17, 2019
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If a foal becomes an orphan soon after birth, the most important thing is to assure that it receives enough colostrum (at least 2 litres) within the first 12 hours of life. That is because the foal does not receive any immunity through the placenta; it receives immunity from the mare by drinking the colostrum. Colostrum contains a high concentration of immunoglobulins (also called antibodies). These immunoglobulins are absorbed by the intestine of the neonate only during a short period after birth. If the foal is older than 12 hours, the intestine can no longer absorb these important immunoglobulins, thus plasma transfusion would be necessary for a correct passive transfer of immunity.
When the foal is around 18-24 hours old, we can measure immunoglobulins in the blood to be sure that the ingestion of the colostrum was sufficient. If their concentration is above 800 mg/dL the passive transfer is considered complete.
A healthy foal ingests an amount of milk corresponding to approximately 20-30% of its body weight per day, divided into small meals multiple times per hour throughout the day. A newborn foal also eats or licks the mother’s faeces during the first days of life. The coprophagy helps the development of the intestinal microflora and thus the digestive capacity of the foal. These are all things that we have to keep in mind when rearing an orphan foal.
For the source of nutrition, we have a few options:
- A foster mare
This is the best solution both for the alimentation and the behavioural development of the foal. Mares that have lost a foal are easiest to accept a new foal, it is also possible for some mares with abundant milk production to rear two foals at the same time. In this latter case, it can be important to check that there is not too much age difference between the two foals. The older may not allow the younger to nurse, and the age of the foal needs to be matched with the lactation phase of the mare. When the foal is very young and the lactation already advanced, there may be some vitamins and electrolyte deficiencies in the milk.
- A step goat
The composition of goat’s milk is different from those of the mare but not as much as the cow’s milk thus, it can be a temporary good solution. The goat can be trained to step on a shaving block or an elevated surface while receiving a food reward so that the foal can nurse comfortably. The milk production of a goat is usually not enough for a newborn foal, but if the foal is old enough to start eating some solid food, the nutritional support with the goat’s milk can be sufficient for a correct development.
- Artificial milk
This is the more exhausting solution for the caretakers of the foal; prepare for sleepless nights! It is a continuous job to prepare milk every few hours. At least during the first days of life, a newborn foal needs a meal every hour or every other hour, including at night. As the foal grows older the intervals can be prolonged.
The composition of artificial milk is not exactly the same of mare’s milk. The carbohydrates are usually in the form of maltodextrins and corn starch, and these can more easily ferment into the gut of the foal and cause diarrhea. It also usually contains high levels of minerals that are not a problem for a healthy foal but can be dangerous for foals with renal or other diseases.
If we are going to rear the orphan with artificial milk, we can administer it with a feeding bottle or a bucket. The feeding bottle is usually easier to accept by a young foal, but if it becomes weak or sick there is a high risk that the milk ends up into the respiratory tract and causes bad pneumonias. Another disadvantage is that foals usually become quickly dependent from the human that is feeding them and this can lead to behavioural problems. Feeding from a bucket can be harder to teach to a very young foal, but there’s no risk of aspiration pneumonia and less risk for behavioural issues.
Apart from the nutritional aspects, the behaviour of an orphan foal needs particular care. As soon as possible, it’s advisable to assure some kind of visual and social contact with conspecifics, such an old gelding or a pony, or even other animals if no horses are available. Most important is to avoid treating it as a pet. This can cause serious consequences on its future relation with humans.