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Overview of Management of the Neonate in Large Animals

By Daniela Bedenice, DVM, DACVIM, DACVECC, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University ; Laurie J. Gage, DVM, DACZM, USDA APHIS Animal Care, Center for Animal Welfare

Appropriate management in the peripartum period can substantially reduce morbidity and mortality for large animal dams and their offspring. As much as 5% of foals, 5%–10% of calves, and 10%–15% of the annual lamb crops die before weaning in the USA, with 50%–70% of neonatal mortality occurring in the first 3 days of life. A key aspect of managing the large animal dam includes appropriate nutrition and body conditioning in the pre- and postpartum periods to reduce the risk of pregnancy-related diseases such as pregnancy toxemia, hypocalcemia, and vaginal prolapse; as well as to optimize hygiene, colostrum quality, and fetal and neonatal growth. Appropriate anthelmintic therapy and vaccination of the dam several weeks before parturition will further protect dam and offspring from subsequent disease.

Particular conditions affecting large animal neonates in the immediate postpartum period include prematurity, failure of passive transfer, sepsis, perinatal asphyxia, predation, mismothering, meconium impaction, and various congenital diseases. Substantial losses can occur in flock or herd situations, and altering problematic aspects of management can therefore be of great benefit. Generally, equine and camelid neonates can be managed more intensively than neonatal calves, pigs, or lambs because of economic considerations. However, rapid assessment and appropriate management of all large animal neonates in the immediate postpartum period can substantially reduce the need for intensive and expensive measures in any species.

Growth rates of neonates are particularly rapid during the first month of life. For example, the average Thoroughbred foal is born at ~68% of its mature height and 10%–11% of adult weight, with an average weight gain of 1.5–1.7 kg/day. Regular monitoring of weight gain can thus be a practical aid in determining healthy growth and development. Foals that lack maturity can display a spectrum of clinical and clinicopathologic abnormalities that include short silky hair coat, “floppy” ears, incomplete ossification of the tarsal and carpal bones, hyperextended fetlock joints, domed forehead, abnormal temperature regulation (normal to low body temperature), depressed mentation, weakness, poor suckle reflex, and respiratory dysfunction.