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Foal Scours:  A Natural Rite Of Passage

By Jeffrey Rolo

Foal scours (a specific type of diarrhea) has long been wrapped within a shroud of mystery, a shroud that even modern science hasn't yet been able to fully pierce. The messy ordeal can also be quite intimidating to first-time foal owners since at that young age diarrhea can seriously dehydrate the foal in a very short time. Luckily, foal scours is perfectly natural and a process all foals will experience in varying degrees.

What causes scours?

Foal scours almost always coincides with the dam's first heat, most often referred to as her foal heat. The dam's foal heat and the subsequent foal's scours usually take place seven to 10 days after the foal's birth. Since the foal's scours would match the timing of the dam's first heat it was long believed that the cause was due to hormonal changes within the mare that was passed on to the foal through the milk.

Scientific studies have disproved this as the root cause… almost. Foals that are orphaned or fed a milk-supplement rather than a dam's milk have been shown to also go through the scours period, so clearly hormonal changes passed on through a mother's milk is not the true cause. Yet even though a dam's hormonal changes has been shown not to be the actual cause for foal scours, when a foal is receiving his feed from his dam his scours almost always coincides with the dam's heat – so the jury is still out on exactly why this coincidence so consistently exists.

The University of Florida performed some studies on foal scours that suggests it is actually caused by changes within the foal's digestive system as it prepares to accept solid food. During the initial "gear-up" period too much fluids and enzymes are released for the large intestines to absorb, resulting in a light case of diarrhea.

Should I worry?

No, foal scours is a perfectly normal process for all young foals. Due to the vulnerability of foals you should closely monitor the foal's progress, because whereas scours rarely does any harm you do want to make sure the foal doesn't develop a particularly bad case, nor do you want to confuse the natural scours with a genuine case of diarrhea caused by a virus or pathogen (disease-causing bacteria). A foal can become dehydrated very quickly, and unless the problem is addressed immediately the foal could conceivably die.

A foal in the midst of scours should not show any signs of fever, discomfort, depression or lack of appetite because scours is not an actual illness like other causes of diarrhea. The foal should be bright and chipper throughout the day, playing and prancing about just as he/she always has. In addition the foal should also continue feeding several times per hour, so monitor the dam's udder and ensure it's not overly full or dripping milk. If it is, the foal may not be feeding enough.

What can I do?

There really isn't anything you can do to prevent foal scours since it is a natural rite of passage for horses, but there are some steps you can take to ensure everything flows smoothly (okay, given the subject matter perhaps that wasn't the best choice of words!).

As mentioned above, monitoring the foal's progress is a must! The moment you suspect the foal is showing signs of illness or isn't drinking enough milk put a call through to your veterinarian. It's better to be safe than sorry.

Some horse owners will give their foals yogurt (to introduce healthy bacteria to the stomach) or Kaopectate and/or Pepto-Bismol (to alleviate the diarrhea), but I don't find either to be necessary unless the scours is particularly strong. Foals will usually eat some of the dam's manure to coat his stomach with healthy bacteria. Grimace-inducing for us, perhaps, but an effective and natural action for foals.

The diarrhea caused by foal scours can irritate the horse's skin, so unless you take precautions expect a bare patch on your foal's rump once the scours has taken its course. Of course the hair will grow back, but if you wish to try and prevent its loss in the first place (and any potential skin irritation) then make sure you wash the rump gently a few times each day.

After the wash, pat the area down with a soft towel so it's fairly dry and then apply either mineral oil or a petroleum-jelly product such as Vaseline to the rump and rear legs. This will help prevent the diarrhea from contacting the actual skin and sticking to the hair, making irritation far less likely and clean up much easier. Just make sure you are careful not to allow your foal to develop sunburn on his rear due to the petroleum enhancing the sun's natural rays.

Foal scours is a messy little ordeal, but luckily it should pass in a short period of time, generally 4-6 days.

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