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Veterinary Topics: Obstetrics

See Also: Feeding the Adult Labrador | Reproduction | Preventative Medicine
Neonatal Care | Feeding Your New Puppy | Crate Training | Ask the Doc

The Eye of the Tiger

Having delivered literally thousands of Thoroughbred foals and hundreds of puppies over the years, let me say that I have found myself in some totally unbelievable circumstances that would raise more than just a few eyebrows. How about being "shoulder-deep" into the reproductive tract of some of the most valuable mares in central Kentucky attempting to deliver a "problem child" who thought he could be the first ever to come into the world sideways. Or being bathed, head to toe, in equine amniotic fluid in the middle of winter at two in the morning? That will not only raise your brow, but trust me, it will bring a few tears to your eyes as well. It's very potent stuff!

But before I discuss a bit of the more "normal" situations you're likely to encounter when whelping man's best friend, I must share with you one of the most fascinating aspects of the equine species that I have ever experienced. Although I have never seen this phenomenon with the many dogs I have whelped, there have been several times when the term "bitch" would more accurately describe the foaling mare than her canine counterpart.

The scenario begins with a midnight call from the night watchman who senses that something is not right with the mare in the foaling stall. "She broke her water, Doctor Joe, but nothing's happened and she's steaming pretty good. She keeps pawing at the ground and walking in circles around her stall. Then she lays down on her side and groans a lot but I can't see the hooves of the baby like I normally do when she pushes. I think you better come quick Doctor".

I can tell from past experience that there's trouble. This particular foaling man has seen plenty of normal deliveries. He has learned through experience what I believe is the most important thing to know.... the normal from abnormal. And having worked with him for years, I know he's very concerned. It takes me 20 minutes to get up, get dressed and drive into the foaling barn.

I arrive to find a very anxious man who has a stainless steel bucket filled with steaming hot water and disinfectant waiting outside the mare's stall. Although it's only 25 degrees outside, I take off my coat and sweatshirt and quickly get into a clean pair of short-sleeve coveralls. After a quick scrub, we enter the stall to find the mare lying rather helplessly on her side with her head stretched flat out on the straw bedding. She refuses to get up, so I jump down and work on her terms. I'm looking to identify the reason why the foal hasn't come forth after so many incredibly powerful contractions. Each time I attempt a further exam of the birth canal, her contractions feel as if they're going to snap my arms off at the elbow. Any attempts to comfort her are met only with visceral groans.

As a veterinarian I have been around any number of sick or near-death animals that required intense treatment to maintain their life. But to me, nothing has ever matched the picture of desperation and sheer helplessness more than the eye of the mare unable to deliver her baby. It is a look that transcends the species barrier and translates to one phrase........please help me!

My decision is made quickly. The night watchman calls for several assistants who will be needed for physical support. We must anesthetize the mare with a short acting anesthetic and muscle relaxant to stop all abdominal contractions. That's the only way the foal, abnormally twisted in the uterus, can be repositioned to facilitate a manual delivery. It would be futile to attempt such manipulations against the force of nature.

The help arrives, I administer the anesthetic, then quickly begin to explore the birth canal to locate the forelimbs, head and neck of the foal. We all breath a sigh of relief that he is still alive when I stick my fingers in his mouth and describe to the others his attempts to bite them. Acting quickly as the mare rests, I manage to reposition the foal and apply obstetrical straps to each front limb. Then with the help of two assistants, each one applying firm pressure on the straps, we pull with all of our strength to guide the foal through the birth canal and out onto his bed of straw.

Having no time to waste, the foal is separated from the placental membranes, towel dried to help keep him warm and moved to a safe corner of the stall near his mother's head. As mom begins to nicker signaling her quick return to consciousness, we gather around to position ourselves to assist her when she makes her first attempts to rise. Get up too quickly and she could easily fall and seriously injure herself or those of us around her. So it's important to keep her as calm as possible before she rises. We let her see and smell her new baby as this helps to keep her content for a few extra minutes while she licks him and nickers back and forth to him. It's now beginning to make sense to her all of a sudden. Her voice becomes more assertive. She looks around and wonders why all of these humans are hovering around her baby. Yes the baby! Why are they so close to my baby! With a rush she jumps to her feet and puts her body between her newborn and the human intruders. Ears pinned flat against her neck, she bares her teeth at us in a vicious gesture sending us scrambling out the door to safety. There is no question that she would seriously hurt anyone who dares to defy her warnings.

Outside the stall we all breath a sigh of relief. As much for saving the mare and foal as for getting out of her stall in time to save ourselves from certain injury! While we smile at each other for a job well done, I shake my head in complete and utter amazement at the transformation process we were just witness to and intimately a part of!

Coming Soon: Recognizing labor and assisting delivery in the Labrador Retriever.

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