Septicaemia is one of the most serious conditions in foals, and unfortunately a relatively common occurrence in neonates. It is caused by infection of the bloodstream which causes inflammation all over the body. As soon as a foal is born it is exposed to bacteria. Two of the most vulnerable areas for bacteria to enter a newborn’s system are through its navel area and through its mouth. Therefore it is vital that two things occur shortly after birth: the navel is disinfected with a gentle iodine and the foal must receive the mare’s first milk (colostrum). It is from the mare’s colostrum that the newborn receives vital antibody protection against bacteria.
It is extremely important to observe newborn foals in the first 24 hours as this is when symptoms of Septicaemia will often show up. An unhealthy foal will go downhill very quickly and without veterinary care may die in a matter of hours.
A healthy foal will be exploring it’s surrounding, not be shy about trying out its legs, take frequent naps but be up and alert again after that. The septic foal will just slowly decline, want to sleep all the time, and become less responsive to stimulation.
There are a lot of different clinical signs that can be associated with Septicaemia. Most affected foals will have several of these signs, but not necessarily all of them. Some of these signs can also be caused by other problems, but remember that a newborn foal with problems of virtually any kind is at higher risk for developing Septicaemia. Signs of Septicaemia may include:
- Lack of suckle reflex (normal foals should try to suck on a person’s fingers or a bottle nipple if placed in the foal’s mouth)
- Fever (too high a temperature), or hypothermia (too low a temperature)
- High heart rate (most new born foals have a heart rate between 80-120 beats per minute)
- High respiratory rate or trouble breathing
- Gums and lips an abnormal colour (e.g. dark red or purplish)
- Swollen, painful joint(s)
- Cloudy eyes (i.e. anterior uveitis)
- Seizure activity if the brain is inflamed
- Lack of urine production or renal failure
In most cases, the appropriate action to take if you have a foal with any combination of these signs is to call your veterinarian as soon as possible. A sick neonatal foal is an emergency.