A closer look: Sepsis (Septicemia) in Foals
Foals are highly vulnerable to infection in the weeks immediately after birth as their immune system is developing. Without careful monitoring and effective nursing, infection may develop from multiple sources of bacteria.
Septicemia is commonly diagnosed in foals less than 4 weeks of age and is the most common cause of neonatal death. The severity of infection depends on how quickly the condition is diagnosed, the aggressiveness and response to treatment, and the organs affected.
Certain factors increase the risk of developing septicemia.
Foal septicemia is an emergency, and a good prognosis depends on an early diagnosis and aggressive treatment.
A variety of symptoms are possible with sepsis as many tissues and organs can be impacted. Advanced cases of sepsis can lead to infection and failure of several organs (termed multiple organ dysfunction syndrome).
Common routes of exposure to bacteria include:
- Contamination of the umbilical cord leading to omphalophlebitis
- Bacterial placentitis causing infection of the foal while in the womb
Testing and diagnosis
The diagnosis of septicemia requires:
- Physical examination
- Blood work
- Blood culture (to identify the causative bacterial agent)
- Plasma immunoglobulin concentration (to determine if there was failure of passive transfer)
- Diagnostic imaging such as ultrasound or x-rays to identify affected tissues
Steps to Recovery
Treating foals with septicemia is extremely labor intensive, requiring both medical treatment and supportive care.
Treatment may include:
- Plasma transfusion
- Nutritional support such as placement of a feeding tube
- Fluid therapy
- Oxygen therapy
- Warming of the foal to raise body temperature
The average length of treatment is 1-4 weeks. Although septicemia is the most common cause of death in neonatal foals, most foals that recover can have successful athletic careers. Foals that develop infections of the joints have a poorer prognosis for athletic performance later in life. Foals that are treated at specialty hospitals have the best outcome.
Foal septicemia can be prevented by:
- Supervising labor and foaling
- Having a clean foaling area
- Cleaning the mare before and after foaling
- Ensuring the foal ingests good quality colostrum soon after birth
- Checking plasma immunoglobulin levels in the foal and in colostrum
- Dipping the umbilicus in diluted chlorhexidine or povidone-iodine solution
Is Sepsis (Septicemia) in Foals common?
This is a common condition in neonatal foals.
Veterinary treatment may include:
- Plasma transfusions
- Fluid therapy
- Supportive care