Premature delivery is as big a problem with baby horses as it is with baby humans.

Fortunately, the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Virginia specializes in providing neonatal intensive care for the fragile baby horses that have entered the world a bit too soon.

“It’s been quite a successful year,” said Dr. Martin Furr, the Adelaide C. Riggs Associate Professor of Internal Medicine and the clinical faculty member who coordinates the center’s neonatal care service. “We’ve had a number of really intensive and atypical cases that have turned out okay.”

“About 60 foals were admitted to the hospital for neonatal intensive care during the February to May 2006 foaling season, and about 80 percent were successfully treated,” Furr added.

The normal gestation period for a horse is about 345 days. But sometimes, as a result of placental infection or other causes not well understood, a foal is born too early. When that happens, serious medical complications may arise.

“Neonatal disease can range from minor to very severe,” said Furr, who adds that the majority of the foals that present to the hospital for advanced care are about a month premature. “Most of the cases that come here are in the very severe category.”

The premature foals are often suffering from respiratory problems and complications like infections and cardiac problems are also a threat.

Treating a neonatal foal is an intensive process that involves around-the clock care for anywhere from 10 to 14 days, said Furr. Medical therapy involves the administration of IV fluids, parenteral nutrition, antibiotics, oxygen, cardiac monitoring and other support therapy. And yes, it can be a very expensive process.

At the Equine Medical Center, the mothers are often admitted with the foal, so it is not unusual to see a concerned mother nuzzling a baby hooked up to an array of tubes and wires and electronic medical equipment.

The Equine Medical Center has operated a very successful foal-watching program for about 15 years where community volunteers come in to sit with the foals, doing everything from cradling the tender neonates to assisting the nursing staff.

“Our neonatal intensive care service has been a real success story for us,” said Dr. Nat White, the Jean Ellen duPont Shehan Professor and director of the Equine Medical Center. “We’re very pleased to be able to provide this level of service for the regional horse community, and we’re very grateful to all of our volunteers.”

Furr has also established a six-month, post-DVM internship program that has attracted veterinarians from the United Kingdom, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries who wish to learn more about neonatal foal intensive care programs.

Watching a healthy thoroughbred foal weighing 95 – 100 pounds stand for the first time is an exhilarating moment for many horse owners. Thanks to the advanced medical care available at the Equine Medical Center, many equine “preemies” are not far behind.

Owned by Virginia Tech and operated as one of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine’s three campuses, the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center is one of the world’s leading university-affiliated equine hospitals.

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