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by Kim and Kari Baker


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Agalactia: Got Milk?

Article and Photos by Kim and Kari Baker

     Eleven months crawled slowly by, but the long wait is at last over. You joyfully witnessed the birth of a beautiful colt at dawn. All appears to be well and you settle down in the straw to watch the newbornís efforts to gain his feet. His attempts to stand are comical, but it is well past breakfast time and you hunger for a brimming glass of milk.

     Following the ordeal of birth and the energy expended struggling to his uncertain feet, the thing he desires most is a meal too. Eagerly, he begins hunting everywhere for it. His exploration takes him across his motherís chest, behind her elbows, down her forearm, under the belly, and in her flank, nuzzling and sucking everything. It seems like an eternity before the location of the "bottle" is discovered and his hunger can be quenched. But what if he is rewarded after his exhausting search with the equivalent of an empty glass?

     Milking problems are generally the least of an ownerís worries with the majority of those being complications due to excessive milk production rather than no milk, but the complete failure of milk flow following foaling known as Agalactia affects as many as 1,200 to 1,500 mares annually. Though it is quite rare the outcome can be disastrous.

     How does it affect your foal? During gestation the fetus does not accumulate enough antibodies to provide sufficient protection at birth. To compensate, the mare delivers antibodies to her foal through her colostrum or "first milk", a yellowish slightly syrupy substance, which provides immunity to many types of infections. Due to the short time in which the newborn is capable of absorbing these antibodies, her role as milk producer can be crucial to the foalís early health.

     Why doesnít the mare at times provide milk for her foal? Milk Ejection Failure is thought to be caused by the repression of the "milk let down" hormone Oxytocin by the "fight or flight" hormone Epinephrine. A mare stressed or frightened during or shortly after giving birth may have plenty of milk but will fail to eject or "let down" the milk. A second form of Agalactia is Milk Production Failure, which is the breakdown of the milk production process. The most likely cause of MPF is hormonal deficiencies caused by grazing fescue grass infected by a fungi which depresses the levels of milk producing hormones.

     What can be done when your mare fails to produce milk flow? Nursing attempts by the foal will often be enough to stimulate milk flow in the mare with MEF. If not, an injection of Oxytocin and warm compresses to the udder should correct the problem. However, when Agalactia is caused by the failure of the mammary gland to produce milk, treatment often is unsuccessful.

     Whatís the solution to replacing colostrum and motherís milk if milk flow is not initiated within a few short hours of foaling? Milking several ounces of colostrum from another foaling mare or several mares in the same area and bottle feeding it to your foal would be an acceptable alternative to receiving its own motherís "first milk." Many farms routinely milk a small amount of colostrum from their mares and freeze it for future use should it become necessary. If colostrum is unavailable the newborn will require medical care by a veterinarian to receive antibody protection.

     There is no perfect substitute for mareís milk, but foals can survive and thrive on artificial preparations. Assuming by now that your foal has received some form of passive immunity transfer, your next concern is to supply a diet agreeable to his immature gut. A nursemare is one option, though leaving the foal with his own dam seems to "nourish" his will to survive due to early bonding even though she isnít providing the rations. In addition, the presence of the foal and its attempts to nurse will often stimulate milk production in the mare.

      Whether the mare eventually lets down milk or not, you will have to provide a suitable diet to the foal for some time. Raw goatís milk or a commercial milk replacer formulated for foals are good substitutes for motherís milk and should be fed hourly around the clock for the first 10 days. Feedings can be cut back to every three or four hours by day 20 with the introduction of solid foods in the form of commercial foal pellets. Whatever path you choose, your prompt awareness of the problem and action is vital to the foalís well-being.

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