Newborn foal check

Following on from Lizzie Halliwell’s MRCVS blog on getting to know the newborn foal, NEH vet Luke Berry MRCVS delves deeper into common medial ailments of the newborn foal, and what to look for.

Seeing a foaling is a truly amazing experience. But now the hard part is over, it’s time to have a look at your new foal and make sure it’s happy and healthy.

Below are some tips of what to look for to help you through the basics of making sure your foal is on the right track in its first few days of life.


Following foaling, a foal should typically stand within the first hour to two hours of being born. A good suck reflex should typically occur around 5 to 10 minutes after foaling with the foal expected to be ‘on suck’ of its mare within 3 hours of foaling. It is vital that your foal gets on suck as soon as possible. Foals are ‘immuno-naïve’ when born. This means that they haven’t built up immunity to pathogens such as bacteria in the environment and are thus at risk of infection.

The first milk from the mare is rich in colostrum. This is a thick creamy liquid often yellow in colour, which is rich in antibodies. These antibodies will help protect the foal and give it immunity to bacteria and infection. This is the reason it is so vital that the foal drinks sufficient volumes of colostrum in the first 12 of life. After a 12-18 hour period the antibodies cannot be absorbed by the intestine in the foal and this can leave the foal susceptible to infection (sepsis) which can be life threatening. If you don’t see the foal suck within 4-5 hours of birth, call your vet who can feed the mares colostrum via a stomach tube to ensure the foal gains this vital immunity.

Antibody levels should be tested via a blood test which measures IGG. The best way to tell is to take a sample roughly 12 hours after birth. In addition to this allow your vet to give the foal a health check and maybe give the foal a tetanus antitoxin. Alongside the vet check – below are a few things to look out for.

Have a good look at your foal from a distance. Your foal should be bright and alert, be seen interacting with it’s dam and it’s environment. Newborn foals should weigh between 45-55kg, are expected to put on 0.5-1.5kg per day and consume milk at 20 -28% of body weight – this means a lot of feeding. Foals should be nursing between 5-7 times an hour. If it seems significantly less, this is a reason to contact your vet. Being well fed and well hydrated is vital for a healthy foal.

Moving from head to tail have a good look at your foal. Check the nostrils of your foal after nursing. If milk is running from them this is something you should mention to your vet as it may be indicative of a rare congenital abnormality – a cleft palate. Look into your foal’s mouth at the gums (mucous membranes). These should appear pink and moist. Any signs of a deep red or purple colour may indicate sepsis in a newborn. If your foal appears jaundiced (yellow mucous membranes) or has pale mucous membranes, this can indicate a number of serious conditions (such as Neonatal Isoerythrolysis), which can require urgent veterinary attention.

When looking at your foals eyes make sure that both the upper and lower eyelid lie flat against the surface of the eye. Some foals are born with Entropion. This is where the eyelid roll in on itself. These can cause irritation and ulceration if not dealt with but range in severity. Less severe cases simply need to have the eye lid rolled out into its correct position but more severe cases may require your vet to put a stitch into the foals eye lid to keep it in place for 24 to 48 hours.

Your foal should be able to walk around easily and stand and nurse without assistance. Foals can have a wide array of orthopedic deformities with varying severity. Newborn foals often have lax fetlocks and this can be a sign of prematurity. Quite often mild and moderate deformities resolve with time but severe cases of conditions such as contracted tendons may require veterinary attention (splints/casting) and remedial farriery (extensions/trimming) in order to improve conformation.  Some severe cases where angular limb deformities are so debilitating they effect the quality of life of the foal and restrict the foal from even being able to move and nurse and can warrant euthanasia.

Have a look at your foals navel. This should be ideally dipped in an antiseptic solution (chlorhexidine/iodine) of appropriate strength to prevent infection ascending up the umbilicus. Within a day or two the naval should be dry and clean with no evidence of pus or infection. Also be aware of urine dripping from the navel. This is known as a ‘Patent Urachus’ and is not normal. This occurs when vessels, which normally close shortly after birth, have not closed and allow urine to pass from the bladder out through the navel. Many close on their own within in a few days but others will require veterinary attention.

Colts typically should urinate within the first 6-8 hours of life, Fillies within the first 8-11 hours.  Absence of the foal urinating should alert the observer and prompt further veterinary investigation.

Foals should pass their first faecal material known as meconium within the first 24 hours of birth. These appear as dark hard fecal pellets. Some foals struggle to pass these without assistance. A fleet enema is a worthwhile cheap and easy way of avoiding colic episodes caused by meconium. If a foal is still straining and colicing despite this, further veterinary investigation is warranted.

The most important thing to remember about foals, like all young stock, things can change very quickly – both for the better and worse! If you’re worried at all please don’t hesitate to call your vet to ask any questions and get any issues checked out early.

Luke Berry  BSc (Hons) BVSc MRCVS

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