Milagros, the miracle foal

Mila standing up

Dave Roberts (right) and family friend Paul Kozun help the tiny foal stand up just minutes after the emergency caesarean section. Photos courtesy of Dawn Roberts.

Last spring, Dawn and Dave Roberts were enjoying a Saturday afternoon with friends and family at their farm that’s located minutes west of Saskatoon, Sask. Annie, one of their experienced broodmares, looked like she was going into labour.

“Our friends’ kids were excited because they thought they’d be able to see a baby horse being born,” says Dawn, whose family raises Appaloosas and Quarter horses.

By 5 p.m. there was still no baby. With the mare showing signs of distress, Dawn called Dr. Harvey Domoslai (WCVM ’96) of Corman Park Veterinary Services. But the local veterinarian was out on a call and couldn’t come for an hour.

“We thought an hour would be too late,” says Dawn. She was on the phone with Domoslai when Annie went down for the last time. “Then Dr. Domoslai asked us, ‘Do you want to try to save the baby?’ At that point I handed the phone to Dave.”

Guided by Domoslai, Dave delivered a chestnut filly by emergency caesarean-section from the deceased mare. “We reached in and found her legs and pulled her out. She wasn’t up in the birth canal at all,” says Dave.

The foal wasn’t breathing either. “At that point your instincts take over,” says Dawn.

Mila at the VMC

Dave Roberts (left) holds the filly while Dr. Ela Misuno (right) and Dr. Nolan Golding examine the foal at the WCVM Veterinary Medical Centre.

Both she and her husband are trained in emergency first aid. Dawn started doing chest compressions on the filly, while Dave cleared her nostrils and gave her a breath. On the third breath the filly gasped and started breathing on her own.

When Domoslai arrived, he recommended taking the filly directly to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s Veterinary Medical Centre. He checked the deceased mare for colostrum, but she showed no signs of milk production. An autopsy later revealed that she had suffered from a ruptured uterine artery.

The Roberts family and their friends drove to Saskatoon with the foal in the back of their SUV. “She was feisty — there were four kids in the back holding her down,” says Dave.

“We hit the highway, we were crying and praying,” Dawn adds. “It was a very emotional day all around. Our kids grew up on Annie, she was the farm’s babysitter.”

More difficult decisions had to be made once the filly reached the WCVM medical centre. At 46 kilograms, she wasn’t far from the average birth weight of 50 kg, but her short silky coat, soft, pliable ears, and mildly flexor tendon laxity indicated some possible prematurity. She was also hypothermic with an elevated respiratory rate.

MIla taking a nap

The tiny foal naps at the WCVM Veterinary Medical Centre. Clinicians fashioned a halter out of vet wrap for the foal.

Clinical intern Dr. Nolan Golding and Dr. Ela Misuno, a resident in large animal internal medicine, were on duty when the filly arrived at the veterinary medical centre. Dr. Fernando J. Marqués, a specialist in large animal internal medicine, also came to oversee and to assess the case.

“The vets were very good about giving us all the different scenarios and run-downs on possible outcomes,” says Dave. “They told us she might be a “dummy foal” because it was hard to say how long she was without oxygen supply to her central nervous system when the mare died. We had to make the difficult decision: do we want to continue with this? What would be in her best interest, for quality of life?

“We decided to continue on and hope for the best,” says Dawn, “because it was Annie’s last baby.”

Milagros on white board

The word “milagros” (Spanish for “miracle”) written on the white board outside of the foal’s stall.

The WCVM clinical team conducted a series of blood and urine tests as well as X-rays of the filly’s knees to assess her maturity and weight-bearing status. The veterinarians gave her intravenous plasma to provide the antibodies that would normally have come from her mother’s colostrum, and they started her on a broad-spectrum antibiotic combination as a proactive measure. She also received supplemental intranasal oxygen during her first night in the centre.

The filly had a weak suckle reflex and was unwilling to nurse, so she was placed on an indwelling feeding tube for the first few days. She was fed every two hours by the feeding tube and, as she improved, was gradually switched over to a bottle. She was also kept on continuous intravenous fluid therapy during the first days of hospitalization to help maintain a normal hydration status and a normal acid-base and electrolyte balance in the blood.

Marqués also treated the foal with magnesium sulfate, a drug that has been used in neonatal human medicine to help reverse neurological damage due to hypoxic/ischemic injury (oxygen deprivation). “Studies on the drug have proven to be inconclusive,” he explains. “But it is one of those things that might help.”

Mila nursing

After five days at the WCVM, Milagros returned home to the Roberts farm.

The filly was hospitalized at the WCVM for five days. The Roberts family visited regularly; they had taken to calling the foal “Little Orphan Annie.” Then one day they noticed that Marqués, who is originally from Argentina, had written Milagros — “miracle” in Spanish — on the white board beside the baby’s stall.

The name stuck. Mila,as she was now known, came home on April 28. “After the first week, the novelty of night-time feedings really wore off, but that’s part of being on a farm,” says Dawn. A bigger problem, common with orphan foals, was that baby Mila was getting aggressive at feeding time. She needed an equine role model — ideally, a foster mare.

Marqués and the theriogenology team at the WCVM’s veterinary medical centre recommended a protocol to induce lactation in a foster mare. Dawn and Dave knew the perfect horse, one of their ex-broodmares. “Peppy was a very maternal mare,” says Dave. “She would often let other mares’ foals nurse off of her in the pasture.”

Mila and nurse mare

Peppy, Mila’s foster mare, stands guard over the sleeping, three-week-old foal.

Peppy and Mila were put in adjacent stalls, and the mare immediately began nickering to the foal. Peppy also received drugs to induce lactation over a two-week period. The mare and foal were eventually turned out with the rest of the broodmare band.

Now registered with the Appaloosa Horse Club of Canada, Mila took part in her first halter classes last fall and earned a fourth-place ribbon in the futurity class at Moose Jaw, Sask. Despite her very rough start, Mila is happy, healthy and bright as can be. Looking to the future, the Roberts family expects amazing things from FER Annias Milagros — Annie’s miracle.

Read “Emergency care for orphan foals: five tips” for more details on foal care.


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