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Colostrum: The importance of timing

Ensuring that the newborn foal nurses soon after birth is critical. The foal needs to ingest colostrum within the first 24 hours of life – preferably as early as possible. This is because during the first 24 hours, the antibodies in colostrum consumed by the foal can be absorbed across the intestinal tract, directly into the foal's immune system. After the first 24 hours passes, the intestinal tract of the foal matures and any antibodies contained in the colostrum will be digested, just like any other protein.

Ensure foal gets colostrum within 2-4 hours

The best quality colostrum is thought to be present in the udder during the first 8 hours after foaling. So the aim should be to have the foal consume colostrum within the first 2-4 hours after birth. Weak foals may need help to nurse, but be careful if bottle feeding because a newborn foal with a weak sucking reflex may accidentally breathe in some of the milk and develop a lung infection. In some cases, it may be necessary to deliver colostrum through a tube from the nose directly into the stomach (called a nasogastric tube). This procedure should only be done by your vet.

What happens if a foal doesn't get enough colostrum?

It's not just the timing of colostrum that is important. The quality of colostrum – and the quantity that the foal consumes – can also influence how well the foal is protected from disease. A healthy, vibrant foal with a strong sucking reflex is likely to consume around 1-3 L of colostrum. So if the foal fails to get enough colostrum, gets it at the wrong time, or if the colostrum is of poor quality, the foal may remain susceptible to infections. This is referred to as failure of passive transfer (or FPT). FPT can be partial (the foal may only be partially protected) or complete (the foal has received no protection from its mother’s colostrum, and is at high risk of disease). If your vet suspects FPT, blood tests can be used to make a diagnosis and to guide treatment.