BY SUSAN KAUFFMANN
Avoid fretting, but be aware of what scenarios are cause for concern in the weanling. Laid out here, are eight issues commonly seen in weanling horses, along with explanations to help you tell if you need to worry or not.
1. Not eating feed
Don’t worry as long as the youngster is eating some hay and/or grass and seems bright and energetic. As Michael Peron, DVM, of Surrey, BC says, “If there is a change of feed and they are reluctant to eat a particular new feed stuff, I wouldn’t be concerned. Fussiness and unfamiliarity will usually give way to curiosity and hunger soon enough.” Feed good quality hay and small amounts of pellets or grain rations as directed by your veterinarian or equine nutritionist, and baby should come around. Try adding a drizzle of molasses over feed to make it especially tempting.
Consult your veterinarian if the youngster won’t eat anything at all for more than a day, seems dull and listless, or if it exhibits signs of colic or other illness. “When a horse doesn’t want to eat at all,” says Dr. Peron, “my concern is that this could be a sign that they are developing some kind of disease, and going off their feed is just the tip of the iceberg.” Not eating for many hours at a time can also lead to ulcers, and conversely, ulcers can cause a horse to go off its feed, so it is good to be familiar with the signs associated with this ailment.
2. Runny nose
Young horses, like little kids, do not have the fully developed immune system of an adult, which leaves them more susceptible to common respiratory infections. Giving a flu/rhino vaccination might seem like a logical way to prevent this, but it is not recommended in most instances. “Generally,” explains Dr. Peron, “we don’t vaccinate weanlings for flu until they are nine or even 12-months-old because the research indicates that they’re not really immunologically able to respond to the flu vaccine before then, and there may actually be some contraindications for giving those vaccines too early.” On its own, a runny nose is not cause for undue alarm. Antibiotics are not usually called for, and most of the time, an otherwise healthy weanling will fight off a minor upper respiratory infection. Allowing it to do so is actually beneficial in helping the young horse to develop its natural immunity. However, a horse with a runny nose should definitely be checked for fever and watched for any other symptoms such as lethargy, coughing or loss of appetite, all of which could indicate a more serious situation.
Don’t worry about a runny nose as long as the weanling is eating well and seems otherwise normal, but do watch to see if it is resolving or not. An ongoing runny nose can indicate a sinus infection or some other kind of problem. A runny nose accompanied by a slightly elevated temperature (normal for weanlings is generally about 101°F, a bit higher than adult horses) is not cause for panic, but you would definitely want to monitor the horse closely.
Consult your veterinarian if the horse develops a high fever (103°F or more), or if a lower grade fever does not resolve within a few days. Also contact your vet if the youngster develops a cough, shallow breathing or other symptoms, or if the nasal discharge is foul smelling. Such symptoms are especially concerning if the horse has been recently shipped, as youngsters are particularly vulnerable to “shipping fever” (pleuropnemonia), which can be very serious. aSays Dr. Peron, “It’s a good idea with any horse that’s been shipped to take its temperature soon after it arrives and continue to monitor it for a few days, just to stay on top of any possibility of shipping fever.”
Equine warts (viral papillomatosis) are small bumps on the skin caused by the equine papilloma virus. They are most often found on the muzzle and lower part of the head, and they are extremely common in horses aged six months to three years. Though not pretty, they are almost never more than a cosmetic problem and will generally go away without treatment in three to four months. Because they are viral in origin, the warts are highly contagious to other horses who have not been exposed to the virus (most have been by age five), but they are not contagious to humans.
Don’t worry in general about these warts. Though they share some physical characteristics with verucous sarcoids (and it is easy enough to confuse the two), a young horse is far more likely to have warts than sarcoids. “On your list of things to be concerned about, warts should be at the very bottom,” says Dr. Peron.
Consult your veterinarian only if the warts appear to be causing pain, look like they are becoming infected, or show no signs of abating after four or five months.
Stomach ulcers are common in weanlings, with estimates putting the numbers at up to 50 per cent. The stress of weaning itself, along with changes in diet and transportation, can lead to ulcers in these youngsters. Since most of the symptoms of ulcers can be associated with other problems as well, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what is going on without a veterinary examination. “Mild but persistent colic, teeth grinding (bruxia), poor appetite and depression are what I see most commonly associated with ulcers in weanlings,” says Dr. Peron, “but you can also see diarrhea, excess salivation, poor condition or a pot belly appearance”.
Don’t worry if you see mild symptoms off and on for up to a week, especially if the foal has just been weaned, changed feed, or has had to adjust to a new situation. Mild ulcers brought on by such stresses will usually resolve fairly quickly without intervention once the youngster settles into its new routine.
Consult your veterinarian if symptoms are marked, persistent, or continue for longer than a week. “Most ulcers are not terribly serious if they don’t go on for too long,” explains Dr. Peron, “but it is a potentially life-threatening condition. Ulcers by their very nature cause bleeding, and while an older horse can handle that to a certain extent, a young horse can more easily become extremely depressed, run down and anemic.”
5. Hoof changes
The bodies of young horses change and grow at an astonishing rate, and their hooves are no different. In fact, the hooves of a weanling are extremely “plastic”, meaning they can change their shape quite easily in response to external and internal forces. This can be a positive thing if you are trying to correct a problem, but the flip side is that a nice-looking hoof can distort faster than you might think if allowed to become imbalanced. For this reason, states Dr. Peron, “I am a strong advocate of early and frequent hoof care in foals and weanlings.” Young horses also need movement (and lots of it!) to allow the internal structures of their feet to develop properly, preferably on firm or varied terrain. Even if they have that, it is important to keep a close eye on young feet, and get your farrier in there sooner rather than later if you start to see any problems.
Don’t worry if you see jagged edges or snags along the bottom of the hoof wall. This is nature’s way of trimming away excess material, and usually causes no problem for the horse. It is also worth remembering that foals are born with quite “tubular” hooves that may also appear slightly more upright than a normal adult horse’s feet. You should see the more adult “cone” shape starting to be evident by the time the youngster is six or seven months old.
Consult your hoof care professional or veterinarian if you start to see long toes, or very short toes with excessive heel growth (feet too upright), flaring, under-run heels, medial/lateral imbalance, or any other distortion.
A healthy young horse should have normal looking manure – not too hard and not too mushy, but it is not at all uncommon for weanlings to have loose stool on occasion. While this is usually not serious, it can be indicative of a number of problems. It can be brought on from stress or having to adjust to new foods, but persistent diarrhea can be a symptom of a variety of ailments, including parasite infestation. It is therefore important to monitor the horse for other symptoms, keep track of how long the problem goes on, and to assess the degree of looseness.
Don’t worry if the stool is merely soft or loose, but the horse is otherwise normal. If you see this kind of manure, Dr. Peron advises that you monitor the horse’s temperature, appetite and attitude, and just ensure that the horse stays clean. “You can put some Vaseline on their rear ends so that it doesn’t stick to them,” he says, “and you should see things clear up within a few days if the horse is just reacting to a stressful event or a change in diet.”
Consult your veterinarian if there are other symptoms present or the stool is very watery and this persists for more than a day. When it comes to young horses getting the runs, less is more – meaning the less firm the manure is, the more seriously you should take it. Says Dr. Peron, “Persistent liquid manure is a concern because young horses are very susceptible to dehydration. I would also get on it if a horse is off its food, depressed or lethargic, or if there is a fever associated with the loose manure.”
7. Cuts and Scrapes
One of the greatest pleasures of having weanlings is watching them leaping, running and bucking with the irrepressible exuberance of youth. However, that same exuberance can lead to bumps, bruises, cuts and scrapes, some of which may require serious attention. Whatever age your horses are, it is always advisable to keep a well-stocked emergency kit in your barn and to know how to use it, but this is especially important with youngsters, who are definitely more accident prone than their older counterparts.
Don’t worry if you are dealing with a scrape (abrasion) that has not penetrated through the skin. Says Dr. Peron, “If it’s an abrasion, but not a laceration (all the way through the skin layers), then normal first aid – keeping it clean and such – will suffice. If it is on their lower extremities I may bandage for a day or so, but abrasions are not usually too much of a concern. The horse owner can generally take care of abrasions because there isn’t much more the vet is going to do anyway beyond just cleaning it up and keeping it clean.” Flushing an abrasion with plenty of sterile saline is the best way to clean it, as wiping can be painful and cause more irritation. Over the counter antibiotic ointments may be applied, but some experts feel it is best to just clean a scrape and leave it to heal on its own. If it is fly season, you may want to put some kind of repellent around the wound to keep the bugs away, but never put fly spray directly on a wound unless it is a product specifically designed for use on wounds.
Consult your veterinarian if you are dealing with a laceration, puncture wound, or if you are unsure if the wound is all the way through the skin or not. “It can be difficult to determine whether you are dealing with an abrasion or a laceration at times,” says Dr. Peron, “but since all but the most trivial lacerations do require veterinary care, it is better to be safe than sorry.” Your veterinarian may advise putting the horse on antibiotics, and will check to be sure there is no foreign material in the wound or damage to deeper tissues. Puncture wounds are also cause for concern, as they can often be more serious than they look and are highly prone to infection. Pay special heed to any lacerations or puncture wounds on the lower legs or abdomen.
8. Weight loss, pot belly, dull or rough coat
If you notice these symptoms in your youngster, either singly or together, the most likely causes are either internal parasites or a nutritional issue. Most often, a weanling exhibiting these symptoms is in need of deworming, and this can be surprising because you may see this even if you are deworming on the standard 60-day schedule. Weanlings, because of their immature immune system, high metabolism, and low energy reserves, show the effects of worm infestation much more quickly than most mature horses. Because of this, they sometimes need a more frequent, more intensive or more targeted deworming program. However, the same symptoms can show up if the horse’s diet is simply not meeting its nutritional needs. Pot bellies and poor condition are common in youngsters who are eating large amounts of low quality roughage, which basically fills the gut to its maximum capacity while depriving the horse of necessary energy and nutrients. Don’t worry if all you are seeing is a bit of “ribbiness”, but the horse otherwise looks healthy. In fact, says Dr. Peron, “Weanlings, in my opinion, should be somewhat ‘ribby’. Particularly during periods of rapid growth, they will often look like they are losing weight. Sometimes they’ll go through a growth spurt and suddenly they’ll look quite ribby because they’ve basically thinned down because they’re shooting up. That’s pretty normal. I think people get a little over-concerned about that and tend to overfeed, if anything. Considering all the problems we have with developmental bone disease, OCD, and so on, a little ribby is actually quite healthy.”
Consult your veterinarian if you see persistent weight loss over a period of weeks, often noticeable as a loss of muscle along the topline, or if your horse has a pot belly or rough-looking coat despite regular deworming. Your veterinarian may want to take a deeper look at the parasite situation, check for some other type of problem such as ulcers, or you may need to make some nutritional changes that he/she can advise you on. “If you’ve ruled out parasites and disease,” says Dr. Peron, “you would have to consider your feeding program – is the horse getting enough to eat, and appropriate feed. I would actually like to see more people weighing their feed in order to better calculate what their horses are actually getting. Feeding by flake or by can or whatever is kind of meaningless unless you know how much that actually weighs, and what the energy and nutrient value is per pound of what you are feeding.”
Published in the March 2008, edition of the Western Horse Review.