To the observant stockman, a sick foal stands out like an Aberdeen Angus bull in a field of Charolais heifers


  • its general manner,
  • the way it moves,
  • the way it follows its mother,
  • the manner in which it nurses,
  • the condition of the mare's udder
  • PLUS:
  • the information gained from the thermometer
  • the character of the mucous membranes of the eye and mouth
  • the character of faecal matter passed or felt by digital examination
  • The comparatively high mortality amongst newborn foals is often down to poor observation and bad management. When a young animal's condition starts to go downhill, it can do so very rapidly.

Once a foal has become sick enough that it is apparent to everybody, the following indications are invariably present:

  • The foal stops nursing, as evidenced by the swollen and full nature of the mare's udder
  • The foal has a degree or two of fever. The normal temperature of a foal is 38.33 to 38.61 degrees Celsius. A low fever might be characterised as from 38.89 to 39.83 degrees C. and a high fever at 40.28 degrees C. or more; once the foal's temperature has risen to 40.83 or 41.11 degrees C., then the situation is very dangerous.
  • The foal is showing evidence of diahorrea or constipation.
  • (a) Constipation: constipation in the newborn foal may be a consequence of meconium retention in which case, give an enema. Constipation can lead to impaction colics, always very serious in the horse.
  • (b) Diahorrea: frequently the result of a bacterial and viral infection such as Haemolytic e-Coli, Salmonella, Rotavirus, and Pneumonia. These are life-threatening situations and the symptoms of diahorrea are usually accompanied by dehydration.
  • Dehydration, which is recognised by dry skin, dry mucous membranes and possibly sunken eyeballs, can be quickly and simp[ly tested: take a few folds of skin on the neck and compress them together lightly; if it takes a moment or two to revert to its former smooth texture (i.e. without wrinkles) there is dehydration.

The above four symptoms may, with luck, indicate nothing more than indigestion, constipation or fatigue, but if ignored or left unattended, more serious developments can be expected shortly.

Observation, plus a thermometer and common sense used early will accomplish more than veterinary expertise and an arsenal of drugs used late.

© Dr John Simpson. Dr Simpson heads the Equine Diploma and Certificate courses at the Waikato Institute of Technology (WINTEC).