Foal Pneumonia

Causes, symptoms and treatment of foal pneumonia

Pneumonia is a common cause of death in foals up to six months of age. To help equine keepers in the New Forest understand more about this respiratory disease, Saara answers some of the many questions our equine vets are asked about it below.

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs and airways. It causes respiratory disturbance and oxygen deficiency in the blood. Types include bacterial pneumonia, viral pneumonia, aspirate pneumonia, and Rhodococcus equi pneumonia in foals (from a bacterium found in soil).

What causes pneumonia in foals?

Trouble weaning or not getting enough colostrum from the mother can cause a lack of immunity and leave foals predisposed to infections. Bacterial and viral infections are a common cause of foal pneumonia as they take hold when there is an opportunity to infect. They can also be secondary to congenital conditions and other health issues, like Equine Herpes.

Another cause is aspiration due to a genetic abnormality, difficulty swallowing, choking on liquid or food, or an oesophageal obstruction. With this type, an infection from inhaled or opportunistic bacteria causes pneumonia.

What are the symptoms of foal pneumonia?

If you notice your foal coughing with a runny nose, wheezing and having trouble breathing, these are signs that something is wrong. They may also have a fever, depression, lethargy, weight loss, colic and diarrhoea.

How do you test for pneumonia?

Our experienced equine vets will perform a physical examination including listening to breathing with a stethoscope, observing symptoms, and reviewing medical history. Blood and other sample tests are carried out to determine the cause, which aids treatment options. Rhodococcus equi pneumonia in foals is the most serious, developing over several weeks or months before clinical signs show.

Can foal pneumonia be treated?

Antibiotics and antimicrobials are typically used to treat cases of pneumonia in foals, often intravenously and via a nebuliser. Supplementary nasal oxygen is given until the lungs improve. Treatment can last from 3 weeks to 3 months depending on the type and severity of the illness. Recovery rates are high with early diagnosis and treatment. Sick foals need rest, a clean stable with cool air, and plenty of hydration. Sales, transport, weaning and other stressful events should be avoided.

Can foals die from pneumonia?

In severe cases, foals may need to be hospitalised so their care and environment can be closely monitored. X-rays and other diagnostic equipment are used to monitor their condition. If the infection is too overwhelming, foals can die or require euthanasia.

Is pneumonia contagious?

Pneumonia itself is not contagious between foals and horses. However, infection-causing bacteria and viruses can spread so it’s important to implement biosecurity measures.

Can foal pneumonia be prevented?

You can help prevent pneumonia by keeping foals in a clean, dust free, well-ventilated environment. Limit overcrowding and quarantine sick animals. Reduce dust issues by rotating pastures. Keep foals from other farms segregated to reduce the spread of infectious agents. Muck stables out frequently. Ensure mares are up to date with vaccinations and monitor foals for symptoms.

If you have any other questions about foal pneumonia, Saara and our equine team will be happy to answer them. Contact our vets