In Colorado State’s Veterinary Foal Care Program, Student Volunteers Provide All-Night Care for Sick and Very Needy Patients

More than 100 Colorado State University veterinary and pre-veterinary medicine students are willing to get up in the middle of the night–in winter, if need be. It makes sense when they enter a stall full of clean straw in the large-animal section of Colorado State’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital. A mare is quietly eating hay and a very small, young horse with a large bandage on its right foreleg is suckling its mother.

It’s testimony to the dedication of Colorado State’s student volunteers that the foal has survived at all. The five-year-old program is largely organized and completely staffed by students.

Some 75 professional veterinary students and 30 pre-vet students supplement Veterinary Teaching Hospital clinical staff dealing with emergencies such as premature birth, inadequate fetal development, infection, exposure or other traumas. Working from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. weeknights and around the clock on weekends and holidays, they provide critical care each year for about 25 foals less than 30 days old.

Ill baby animals may require multiple treatments to help them, including blood transfusions, infusions of plasma with proteins and oxygen therapy from the Veterinary Teaching Hospital’s veterinary staff, with assistance from the volunteers, said Dr. Josie Traub-Dargatz, professor of clinical sciences and a specialist in large-animal veterinary medicine.

In addition, volunteers help by keeping the newborn clean and dry, milking the mother and providing hourly feedings if the baby is too weak to stand and suckle. Monitoring vital signs, turning the baby from side to side as needed and making sure oxygen or intravenous tubes are not dislodged are part of the routine.

This intensive care generates thank-you letters, interactions with veterinarians and technicians and veterinary experience for those applying to veterinary school. As Traub-Dargatz points out, "you don’t ask to care for a sick foal unless you love helping or aiding or assisting animals.

"I think the plus is that the students get the experience of working with and helping a live animal, especially a newborn one who needs the volunteer’s attention and help," Traub-Dargatz said.

The next few months promise to be busy ones, as horses tend to be born in early spring. Intensive care isn’t limited to horses, however, as volunteers take care of calves, crias (baby llamas), kids and lambs.

Third-year veterinary student Stephanie Kube and Jessica Valle, a second-year student, are foal care coordinators this year. If foals and other baby animals make it through the first few critical hours, it’s up to Kube to be prepared to start calling people on the list.

"Whatever slots the volunteers can’t fill, the coordinators do, so there’s a real incentive to schedule those time periods," Traub-Dargatz said.

Traub-Dargatz and colleagues started the program some years ago, but it has blossomed under the student coordinators.

"Clinicians would telephone students at random, dealing with the foal crisis of the moment, and get help," she said. "The program has evolved over the past four or five years into one that is primarily student-driven and staffed."

Dr. Ann Wills, 1997 Colorado State alumna, became the first student coordinator in 1994. She established special "foal" admission forms and a computerized database on each foal’s medical conditions and organized and coordinated student staffing.

"Ann freed up clinicians to do needed care for the foal when first admitted and to assess its condition more fully," said Traub-Dargatz. "She did a great job."

This past year, three student coordinators have shared responsibilities.

Braden Shafer, a third-year student and coordinator from Grand Junction and president of Colorado State’s chapter of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, thinks motivation comes from being effective.

"We can make a difference, Shafer said. "They (newborns) won’t make it if we don’t do this. "It’s the little things (keeping the newborn clean, for example) that are the most tedious, but that makes a difference in the outcome of the case and makes you feel a part of it," Shafer said. "Plus, you pick up a lot of useful information. On the other hand, after volunteering (for part of the night), I can’t say that I haven’t been really tired for classes."

Fourth-year veterinary student Julie Cary, who grew up 60 miles from Cody, Wyo., wanted more contact with foals but found the work had practical payoffs as well. Last summer, a six-week-old moose came in from the Riverside Zoo in Scottsdale, Neb., and Cary spotted a condition called "septic arthritis." Having treated the joint infection in several foals, she knew how to deal with the problem. The moose went home after two weeks, recovering well, she said.

Clinical faculty briefed volunteers at an orientation early in January, introducing them to as many clinical staff as possible. The training is important. Coordinators pair a novice with an experienced volunteer for the first few times, and not just for the sake of the foals. Students usually share a stall with a foal’s full-sized, very anxious mother. While most mares trust humans, Traub-Dargatz said, having one looking over your shoulder as her offspring struggles requires both competence and confidence on the part of the volunteer.

The program concentrates on foals but encompasses other newborns; however, economics becomes an issue. Someone may only pay for a calf’s care up to the animal’s value but often will spend more on care for horses that, like a dog or cat, share a special bond with humans.

"There are some valuable foals, of course, but most people seek treatment for their animals at the Vet Teaching Hospital because they care about them," Traub-Dargatz said. "We see horses in here whose treatment bills far exceed the animal’s dollar value.

"With horses, especially foals, there are often values besides money that matter to people."