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Understanding the Importance of Colostrum in Newborn Foals

Colostrum, the mare’s first milk is extremely rich in antibodies which provide new born foals with protection against infection. Foals cannot produce antibodies of their own when they are first born and until they ingest colostrum they are incapable of fighting infection. A foal must receive colostrum within the first 8-12 hours of life in order to absorb the antibodies. If a foal is too weak to nurse but has a good suck reflex it is possible to feed the foal with colostrum which has been stripped from the mare. In some cases it may be necessary to call your vet who will administer the colostrum to the foal via a stomach tube.

Colostrum protects foals against bacterial and viral infections, such as septicemia and pneumonia. Efficient protection against infections and proper growth of the foal depend on the absorption, quality and quantity of colostrums intake. Colostrum is produced during the last two to three final weeks of pregnancy. The production gradually decreases as the foal sucks. The quality of colostrums depends on the specific weight and concentration of the immunoglobulin content.

Expert management and care of a new born foal is essential to ensure that it receives adequate immunity via colostrum. A mare only produces colostrum for the first 2-3 days of lactation, and the level of antibodies is highest during the first 6- 12 hours. After 24 hours the long chain proteins that form the immune antibodies can no longer be absorbed, but local immunity is provided by the milk for up to 6 weeks.

If a mare appears to be leaking an excessive amount of milk prior to birth, consult your veterinarian. This pre-foaling milk is not typically colostrum-rich. However, depending on your veterinarian’s recommendation, the mare may be milked and the colostrums frozen to give to the foal shortly after birth. For orphan foals, or mares without an adequate supply of colostrums, it is important to locate a back-up supply. Without it, the foal is at an increased risk of infections. Your veterinarian can test the colostrum to determine whether it is rich in antibodies.

Colostrum can be given orally, either fresh or frozen. Failure of the newborn foal to ingest or absorb colostrums within the short period of time following birth results in a condition known as Disorder of Passive Immunity. Moreover, this disorder means that there will have been inadequate absorption of antibodies. This failure to absorb antibodies is termed “failure of passive immune transfer” or FPT. This situation is likely to result in undesired development of infections in newborn foal which can lead to death.