Colorado State Veterinary Researchers Offer Preventive Measures for One Cause of Newborn Foal Mortality

A Colorado State University veterinary research team investigating a deadly gastrointestinal disease in newborn foals has released preliminary results regarding potential prevention measures for use by horse owners.

The Center for Economically Important Infectious Animal Diseases at Colorado State University co-sponsored the study of neonatal enteric clostridiosis, a common but very serious type of diarrhea that is highly aggressive in nature and often fatal. The disease is caused by the bacteria Clostridium perfringens and Clostridium difficile. It typically occurs in newborn foals in the first two or three days of life and progresses rapidly. Sufferers display signs such as drooping ears, hanging head and an inability to get up to suckle. Signs of colic, with or without diarrhea, may also appear and include teeth grinding, abdominal distention, getting up and down more than usual, rolling onto the back or rolling over repeatedly. The foal may also be seen to suckle the mare then drop to the ground and roll on its back.

A characteristic of the disease is bloody diarrhea, a serious sign that may appear as watery, thick and orange-colored, or black or contain bright red blood and have a very strong odor. These signs indicate the need for prompt medical attention.

"Diarrhea and colic in very young foals are signs suggestive of enteric clostridiosis, and foals showing such signs often require intensive veterinary medical care to survive," said Dr. Josie Traub-Dargatz, lead investigator in the study. "Treatment includes dietary restriction, intravenous fluid support, antibiotics, pain management and round-the-clock nursing care."

The high case fatality associated with the disease underscores the need for effective preventive strategies, Traub-Dargatz says. Until now, little has been known about the epidemiology of the disease making it almost impossible to know what preventive measures could be taken.

The research team advises that optimum perinatal hygiene may help reduce the risk for developing the disease and that recognizing signs of the disease can lead to early diagnosis and treatment.

While researchers at CEIIAD continue their work in studying the disease, the following preventive measures are recommended for concerned horse owners:

  • Follow appropriate perinatal hygiene practices such as washing the udder, inner thighs and backside of the mare prior to the foal suckling.
  • Use foaling stalls constructed of easily-cleaned, non-porous materials.
  • Use artificial surfaces rather than dirt floors.
  • Physically clean foaling areas. Spores produced by the bacteria cannot be killed with spray disinfectants, so a thorough, physical cleaning is necessary. This should be done before, after and between each foaling.
  • Keep the stall as free of manure as possible after the birth.
  • Foal mares on grassy pastures where the manure load is low rather than stall confinement.

Researchers point out that, while there is no vaccine for horses, farms with problems related to certain types of the bacteria can work out immunization strategies for brood mares and special treatments of newborns under the direction of a veterinarian.

Additional sources of funding include The College Equine Research Advisory Council On The Use of Racing Funds for Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, a private horse farm and a pharmaceutical company.

For more information, contact the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital at (970) 221-4535 and ask for Drs. Dickinson, Traub-Dargatz or Tillotson.