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Foal Diarrhea: Look to Nutritional Supplements for HelpBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · March 28, 2016

Foals develop diarrhea for several reasons. Most breeders are aware of foal-heat diarrhea, a typically mild form that occurs at one to two weeks of age, coinciding with the dam’s first postpartum estrus. Foals with this type of diarrhea are not systemically ill, so as long as the body temperature, appetite, and brightness remain normal, there is no need for treatment.

Foals are susceptible to viruses, bacteria, and parasites that cause diarrhea, however. By and large, the most pervasive viral cause of diarrhea among foals is rotavirus, which produces watery diarrhea, anorexia, and depression. Severely affected foals might become dehydrated and have electrolyte imbalances, particularly low sodium and chloride.

Treatment of foals is normally centered on supportive therapy, which often includes intravenous fluids, parenteral nutrition, and broad-spectrum antimicrobial administration. In many cases of viral diarrhea, sodium bicarbonate is indicated as a way to counteract severe metabolic acidosis*. One safe way to deliver sodium bicarbonate is through the use of EquiShure, a time-released source of buffering agents, principally sodium bicarbonate.

Bacteria that have been implicated in foal diarrhea reads like a who’s who of pathogenic troublemakers: Clostridium perfringens, Clostridium difficile, Escherichia coli, Salmonella spp., and Lawsonia intracellulare.

L. intracellulare is typically associated with proliferative enteropathy, a disease that mostly hits foals after weaning. Signs include depression, substantial weight loss, subcutaneous edema, colic, and diarrhea. Foals with L. intracellulare infection often have a rough appearance with an unhealthy hair coat and a pot-belly.

Parasitic problems are usually caused by transmission through the milk. Principle among the parasites that cause diarrhea in foals is Strongyloides westeri. Appropriate deworming measures should take care of parasite problems.

In addition to EquiShure, supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids, especially the “marine omega-3s” docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), could strengthen the foal’s immunity. One effective marine-derived source of DHA and EPA is EO•3. Foals may also benefit from natural-source vitamin E, which an antioxidant powerhouse suitable for all horses recovering from illness. Water-soluble, natural-source vitamin E, such as that found in Nano•E, affords the greatest antioxidant advantages.

Diarrhea in foals should be attended to as soon as it is noticed. Foals become dehydrated quickly, and problems can begin to mount rapidly. Once foals are stabilized and under the care of a veterinarian, nutritional supplements can be added to help support recuperation and revive immunity.

*Reed, S.M., W.M. Bayly, and D.C. Sellon. 2004. Equine Internal Medicine. Saunders. St. Louis, MO.