During the first 30 days of life, newly born horses (called "foals") are especially sensitive to bacteria and other dangers commonly found in their every day surroundings. Each year between January and June, dozens of these foals are brought to Virginia Tech's Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center for treatment where the hospital's experts work diligently to return the critically ill young animals to full health.
“We work with extremely compromised patients that sometimes arrive to us with diseases involving multiple organs,” said Dr. Anne Desrochers, clinical assistant professor in equine medicine. “It is very fulfilling to see many of these little babies go home happy and healthy after having been so sick.”
Common problems that can affect foals include prematurity, neonatal sepsis (infection), hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (brain damage resulting from a lack of oxygen which is also known as “dummy foal”) and diarrhea. “These diseases can occur due to exposure to pathogens in utero or after birth” said Desrochers.
Due to their delicate nature, neonates that are brought in for emergency treatment are always seen first by members of the hospital’s internal medicine team who specialize in the physiologic interaction among internal body systems. These board certified experts oversee and implement their care along with help from residents, interns and nurses.
“The nature of a neonate’s illness can be more volatile because their immune defenses are not quite as vigorous as those of adults,” said Dr. Martin Furr, the Adelaide C. Riggs Chair in Equine Medicine.
Furr notes that all horses have very sensitive organ systems that can be damaged by sitting or lying down for extended periods of time. A foal’s small size (the average healthy neonate weighs approximately 100-120 lbs) allows the clinicians to prevent this problem by moving the patient often and repositioning their body as needed.
“Their small size enables us to manage their posture so that they don’t become compromised as a result of lying on the mats,” said Furr.
Unlike in human medicine in which infants are often separated from their mothers, foals that are brought to the center are typically kept in the same stall as the mare. This practice is both a convenience for the owner and a benefit to the patient.
“When the foal is healthy and gets back home, we want them to have a full and normal life with their mothers so, in most cases, it is best if they stay together during treatment,” said Desrochers. “The mares are usually extremely cooperative because they seem to understand that we’re here to help.”
Integral to the success of the center’s neonatal care service is the Foal Watch Volunteer Program which matches volunteers with cases requiring around-the-clock attention. Participants in the program sit with sick patients for assigned periods of time in order to observe and report any physical or behavioral changes.
“It is important to be very alert with neonates because their weakened state makes them susceptible to other complications,” said Furr. “Our faculty, staff and volunteers, very carefully monitor these patients to avoid problems such as sores, eye infections and imbalance in blood glucose levels.”
According to Penny Archer, director of volunteer services at the center, the Foal Watch Volunteer Program runs from the time that the first foal is admitted in early February to the time that the last patient leaves in late June. Horse experience is not necessary but all participants undergo mandatory training.
“The goal is to supplement the equine medical center’s workforce with a capable and trained volunteer team,” said Archer. “They are an extra pair of eyes, hands and ears in the intensive care unit.”
Although the task of bringing a sick foal back to health can be very challenging and demanding, those who participate in the healing process note that it is also extremely fulfilling.
“The first time they start nursing, the first time that they take steps, it makes your job worthwhile,” said Desrochers. “It’s very demanding to deal with because the foals are usually so sick and vulnerable and not every patient recovers, but at the end of the day, it is always worth it.”
Information regarding the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center’s clinicians and services is available online at www.equinemedicalcenter.net. Appointments for neonatal consultations may be scheduled by calling 703-771-6800.
Virginia Tech’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center is a premier full-service equine hospital located in Leesburg, Virginia, that offers advanced specialty care, 24-hour emergency treatment and diagnostic services for all ages and breeds of horses. One of three campuses that comprise the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, the center’s team of equine specialists is committed to providing exceptional treatment to patients, superior service to clients and cutting-edge research to the equine industry.