by Casie Bazay

How Long is a Foal's Digestive System a Blank Slate?

How Long is a Foal's Digestive System a Blank Slate?

Published: March 2022 | Updated: February 2024

As many of us know by now, immune health is closely tied to the microbial population within the gut. This is true for us as well as for our horses. However, when a foal is born, its immune system is essentially a blank slate. It hasn’t yet been exposed to any type of bacteria, good or bad. From the very first hours of its life, that foal will be dependent on its dam to receive protective antibodies in order to build up its immune system.

Unfortunately, there are several things that can occur which may put foal health at risk for infection during the first weeks or months of life—most notably, a problem getting the mare’s colostrum. If the foal isn’t up and nursing quickly, if the colostrum isn’t good, or if some or all of the colostrum has leaked out before the birth of the foal, then that foal isn't getting all of the protective antibodies it needs from the start. 

Dr. Rob Franklin has some advice regarding your foal’s digestive health and building immunity directly after birth. The good news is that even if there is a problem with the colostrum, there are some things that we, as horse owners, can do in order to help the foal build immunity. 

Passive Transfer

Dr. Franklin explained that horses are different from most mammals. With people, antibodies are transferred over from mother to baby at birth, but with foals, this doesn't happen. Instead, newborn foals are entirely dependent on colostrum to get those first vital antibodies. This is what’s known as passive transfer.

In those first minutes of life, Dr. Franklin likens the newborn foal’s gut to a freshly tilled garden.

“There’s nothing in there; there’s not a tomato plant, there’s also no weeds,” he said. “It has never seen a virus or a bacteria - friendly or foe.”

In other words, the immune system has not been exposed to anything at all yet. 

There is a limited window of about 12-18 hours in which the foal can acquire those first vital antibodies from its mother, however. Your vet can perform an IgG test to assess antibody levels within this time frame and if the levels are too low, then measures can be taken in order to give the healthy foal the antibodies it needs. 

“Minimum, it’s a pint of good quality colostrum to get the antibody levels up over 2,000 where we want them to be,” said Dr. Franklin. 

If there is failure of passive transfer, however, foals will test below 800 and this is when intervention is needed to avoid infection. 

“One of the more common reasons that we see neonatal foals is whenever they get infections, and more often than not, that is due to the foal not getting enough colostrum,” said Dr. Franklin. “That results in either a systemic infection or a localized infection, which may be in the joints or in the bone.”

Boosting Protective Antibodies in Newborn Foals

Fortunately, there is a way to get a head start on any harmful bacteria that the foal will undoubtedly encounter and help boost the foal’s protective antibodies. This is especially helpful if the foal didn't get enough colostrum or enough quality colostrum from the dam, but it’s also an added protective measure that can be done for any foal. 

Directly after birth, the foal starts collecting microbes, good and bad, from the environment. So essentially, adding some friendly microbes in the gut right from the start is going to give the foal an advantage. 

Again, going back to the garden analogy, Dr. Franklin noted, “It will be like putting out a bunch of friendly seeds. Other plants that we know and like and trust and know are not invasive. Whenever you start watering and fertilizing your lawn, you quit seeing all the weeds. Why? Not because you put weed killer out there, but because the good grass expanded and got stronger and was able to ward off the weeds. The same thing happens with the foal whenever we give it FullBucket’s foal probiotic.” 

Dr. Franklin prefers to give half a tube of Foal Kick Start about 30 minutes after birth and after the newborn foal and mother have bonded. 

"This is not a colostrum supplement,” he stressed. “It’s not a colostrum replacement. This is a local antibody effect for the gut.”

Six hours later or so, you can give the other half of the tube of Foal Kick Start. 

Then on days two through seven, you can follow up with Foal Probiotic Paste which has additional antibodies, enzymes to help with milk digestion, as well as pre- and probiotics. 

Fullbucket’s Foal Starter Kit includes both the Foal Kickstart and Foal Probiotic, as well as foaling indicator strips and foal information cards. 

Foal Health Moving Forward

The good news is that, as the foal continues to nurse over the next three to five months, it will acquire even more antibodies in order to build a healthy digestive system and a healthy immune system. So though the foal’s digestive system begins a blank slate, that doesn’t last for long. 

To keep the “good bacteria” in control and avoid infection in those early days, the most important thing you can do as the horse owner is ensure that your foal is getting good colostrum and intervene right away if this isn't happening. 

Then, by boosting the foal’s antibody intake with Foal Kick Start and Foal Probiotic, you’ll be giving your foal an even better shot at having a healthy start in life.

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