Spirit, a 5-year-old maiden mare, visited the Equine Medical Center last week with her 16-hour-old colt foal. After the foal’s birth, Spirit had displayed no affinity for her baby and had occasionally exhibited mildly aggressive behavior towards him.

At the farm, the foal had been offered milk from a bottle and treated appropriately with plasma and tubed with colostrum. Upon arrival at the center, however, he was down in the trailer and unable to stand without assistance. Although his vitals were generally within normal limits, the colt showed poor affinity for his dam, an abnormal suckle reflex, and weak muscle tone.

An ultrasound of the colt’s chest revealed moderate pneumonia in both lungs, a typical sequela of poor nursing ability. In addition, brief imaging of the abdomen identified meconium within the colon.

The colt exhibited signs of neonatal maladjustment syndrome, including slightly altered mentation and decreased strength. His lack of coordination, coupled with the mare’s aggression, did not allow him to nurse correctly. To aid treatment, a feeding tube and a catheter were placed, and he was placed in one of the center’s ICU foal boxes, which allowed his dam to stay physically close while permitting the clinical staff to care for and treat the foal safely. The foal was introduced to bucket feeding, supplemented with a feeding tube while he learned, and he was assisted onto his feet every two hours.

The following morning, a hormonal administration protocol was introduced, including specifically timed removal and reintroduction of the colt to the mare.

The protocol worked like a charm. Within an hour, Spirit became an interested, doting mother and subsequently began to produce more milk. The colt was transitioned off intravenous fluids and moved into his mare's stall. Although he initially required supplemental bucket feedings because of his mare's poor milk production, he began to rise on his own every hour or so. As Spirit’s milk production improved, the foal began to drink less from the bucket.

The pair remained safely together for the duration of their short stay. Now home, the colt continues to gain strength and is enjoying the great outdoors!

Written by Sharon Peart for the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.