Septicaemia and the new born foal

Septicaemia – every breeder’s worst nightmare – is a serious and life threatening condition caused by infection of the foal either in utero, during birth or shortly after birth. It is defined as the presence of bacteria in the bloodstream. Foals that are affected are said to be “septic”. It is also known as “joint ill”, “navel ill” or “sleepy foal disease”. Up to 33% of neonatal deaths are attributed to this disease.

The majority of systemic infections in foals are caused by gram negative bacteria such as E. Coli which is responsible for about 50% of cases. However other bacteria can be involved such as the gram positive bacteria Streptococcus Zooepidemicus. One of the most treacherous aspects is that the foal can appear well at birth and by the time clinical signs start to show, the infection is too advanced to save the foal. The bacteria get into the bloodstream and travel throughout the body, causing harm to many organ systems including the lungs and the digestive tract.

As with any type of infection, the outcome is determined by the interaction between the foal’s immune system and the infecting bacteria. Allfoals are born without a competent immune system and must receive antibodies from the mare’s colostrum. Colostrum is the thick yellow milk the mare first produces and it contains vital antibodies to protect the foal. The foal needs to get a good 1 – 2 litres within the first 12 hours of birth; however the earlier it gets it the better. It should suckle within 30 minutes of birth. Your vet can insure this “passive transfer” has happened by doing a simple blood test called an Immunoglobulin G (IgG) test. If the foal has not received enough antibodies, a “failure of passive transfer” is said to have occurred. The vet can give the foal a blood plasma transfusion from another horse to help correct these levels. However the donor horse must have been tested for piroplasmosis (a latent billary carrier) as this will be fatal for the foal.

Checking for adequate passive transfer is a crucial preventative action for any foal. Even foals that have been observed to stand and nurse within a few hours after birth should be checked for antibody levels, as there is no other way to tell if the foal ingested enough colostrum. Failure of passive transfer occurs because the foal did not get enough colostrum due to lack of nursing, or because the mare did not produce enough or sufficiently good quality colostrum. Foals that are at risk for septicaemia include premature foals, twins, foals that have had a difficult birth, and foals born to mares that have abnormal placentas.

As said earlier, a foal withsepticaemiamay initially appear healthy. Visible signs of illness include weakness, lethargy, lack of nursing, swollen joints, ordiarrhoeaIf any of these signs appear, a vet should be called to examine the foal. Remember, sick foals do not always have a fever.

A vet should examine the mare and foal within the first 24 hours after birth. The foal should be checked for adequate passive transfer and the mare should be checked to ensure that she has not experienced excessive trauma during the delivery. A vet should also examine the placenta for any abnormalities. If the foal does not stand on its own within two hours, a veterinarian should definitely be called.

All of these precautions may seem excessive for an animal like the horse that rarely needs assistance with delivery and that is born in a relatively mature state. Septicaemia is, however, such a severe illness that any steps taken to prevent it are always worthwhile. Identification of risk factors and the implementation of preventative measures are the best methods for dealing with septicaemia.


Gestational age: 341 days. Range = 315 – 365 days.
Time to sucking reflex: Ave. 20 minutes post-foaling.
Time to standing: Ave. 57 minutes, range 15 – 165 minutes.
Time to nursing: Ave. 111 minutes, range 35 – 420 minutes.
Body temperature: First four days: 38.5 – 39 C.
Respiratory rate: First 15 minutes: 60 – 80 bpm, then 20 – 40 bpm.
First urination: Ave. 8.5 hours after birth, especially for colts
Meconium passage (first stool): Within first 6 hours then must consider enema.
Check mucus membranes during the first day: should be light, moist, pink; if yellow, contact vet

By Frances Cheboub

With thanks to, Dr Helen Tiffin of Equine Vetinary Services, Natal Midlands who checked the article for me.

Vetinary Corner by Dr. F. Franklin DVM, Edgecliff Equine Hospital, Spokane
Vetinary Notes for Horse Owners – Captain M. Horace Hayes FRCVS
Fighting Foal Septicaemia – Alister King MRCVS (
Horse Talk, Feeding the Foal – Dr D. Cuddeford Royal Vet School Edinburgh

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