Health & Environment

Texas A&M Veterinarians Work Around The Clock To Save Newborn Foal

Against odds and sepsis, a German warmblood filly named after royalty finds her strength.
By Megan Bennett, School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences May 8, 2024

Two women examine a young foal with the mare in the background.
Large animal internal medicine resident Sally Alpini and Dr. Amanda Trimble examine Vicky, a German warmblood filly who came to the Texas A&M University Large Animal Teaching Hospital in need of intensive care immediately following birth.

Photo by Jason Nitsch ’14/Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

 

Queen Victoria, the German warmblood filly, proved her strength at a young age, just like her namesake, the United Kingdom’s former monarch who took the throne at only 18 years old.

Almost immediately after birth, the foal, nicknamed Vicky, became separated from her mother, Queenie, after rolling into an adjoining stall. Their few hours apart would have serious consequences because Vicky missed out on some of the special care a mother horse, called a dam, provides in the first few hours of a foal’s life.

When her owner, Dr. Gavin Britz, learned of the incident, he turned to the Texas A&M Large Animal Teaching Hospital (LATH) to nurse Vicky back to health, a two-week process that involved intensive care, special techniques and surgery.

While Vicky came to the LATH in great need of exceptional veterinary care, she left a healthy, spunky filly thanks to her talented veterinary team and dedicated owner.

Building A Legacy

Britz, a Houston neurosurgeon, has loved horses since he was a boy. He has participated in jumping and dressage competitions over the years, and his current focus is on breeding, specifically for the German warmblood.

“I’m setting up a warmblood breeding operation and bringing some of the best horses in Europe to America,” Britz said. “One of my close friends, a world-class German breeder named Stefanie Lohmann, owned Queenie before and said she wanted me to have her because she’s such a special mare.”

When Britz purchased Queenie, he wasn’t just getting the mare; she was also pregnant with a foal sired by Vitalis, a famous warmblood stud.

Because of transportation delays, Queenie didn’t arrive at Britz’s stable in Chappell Hill, Texas, until about two-and-a-half weeks before her due date. She then went into labor sooner than expected, giving birth a week early — late in the night on Valentine’s Day.

The barn manager found Vicky in the adjoining stall only hours later, but the foal had already missed out on colostrum — a preliminary form of milk that contains extra nutrients, antibodies, and antioxidants that is normally passed from mother to baby in the first few hours after birth.

“When we found her, the baby was not doing well,” Britz said. “We contacted the local vet, who said to bring her down to their hospital. After we took her there, they said she probably wasn’t going to survive, but we could try and take her to Texas A&M.”

Britz knew that the Texas A&M School of Medicine graduates whom he helped train at Houston Methodist were talented and dedicated to their craft, so he trusted that the veterinarians, staff and students at the LATH would exhibit the same qualities and would have the skills and determination to save Vicky’s life.

A mare and her foal in a stall at the Large Animal Teaching Hospital
Faculty, staff and students at the Texas A&M University Large Animal Teaching Hospital played a critical role in returning Vicky to health. The foal was weak and lethargic after being separated from her mother shortly after birth and required two weeks of intensive treatment.

Photo by Jason Nitsch ’14/Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

Every Trick In The Book

When Vicky arrived at the LATH on Feb. 15, she was extremely weak, not nursing well and showing an abnormally lethargic demeanor.

“Vicky had what we call neonatal sepsis and failure of passive transfer — basically, she had a bacterial infection that was making her sick. She also hadn’t nursed and wasn’t getting the nutrients she needed for energy, so she was very weak,” said Dr. Amanda Trimble, a clinical assistant professor of equine internal medicine at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“If a foal doesn’t get colostrum in the first few hours of life, developing sepsis is a huge risk, because they are born without an immune system, so they can’t fight off any insult to their little bodies unless they get important antibodies from the mare,” Trimble said.

Because Vicky was so young, Queenie accompanied her to the LATH and proved to be a very dedicated mother. The two were kept in a special stall that allowed the veterinary team to begin stabilizing the foal while remaining in sight of the mare.

Vicky received intravenous fluids and supplemental glucose to make up for the loss of nutrition; plasma for antibodies and immune system support; and antibiotics and anti-inflammatories to address the infection and pneumonia.

Once Vicky was stabilized, the veterinarians noticed that she still had a dull demeanor and decided to also apply a technique called the Madigan squeeze, which can stimulate neural pathways that are normally stimulated during birth.

If the natural process doesn’t happen correctly, which can occur during a rapid delivery, the foal is left in a lethargic, sleep-like state, similar to how it was in the womb — a condition known as neonatal maladjustment syndrome.

“Essentially, it’s like we re-birthed her,” Trimble said. “We apply a nice, steady pressure around the thorax for 20 minutes, and it feels like going through the birth canal again and something resets.”

After several days of intensive, around-the-clock care, Vicky’s overall condition began to improve, but a new problem also arose — her umbilicus, the location where her umbilical cord had been located, started showing serious signs of infection.

“Her umbilicus wasn’t completely normal the first week, but we weren’t as concerned as we were about the sepsis initially. We wanted her to stabilize before we took her to surgery,” Trimble said. “But during the second week, it got really big — almost tripled or quadrupled in size — so I called Dr. (Dustin) Major and our surgery team. Together, we concluded we couldn’t wait any longer and that it needed to be removed immediately.

“The thing that we worry about with umbilical infection is that abscesses can form internally, and because of where all the blood vessels go from the umbilicus, the infection can spread to other organs as well,” she said.

Major, a clinical assistant professor of large animal surgery, removed the now-unnecessary umbilicus and its internal vessels to ensure the infection was gone, after which Vicky improved and was soon fully recovered.

Aptly Named

Vicky had not received her official name during her time at the LATH, but once she was discharged and sent home, Britz knew just what to call her.

“She was born on Valentine’s Day, so that was part of the ‘V,’ along with having the sire Vitalis,” Britz said. “Because you always name the baby after the mother, you then get Queen Victoria. You’ll know she’s from my line because my other top mare is called Queen Elizabeth.”

Many faculty, staff and students were involved in ensuring Vicky’s recovery. In addition to Trimble and Major, Drs. Bridget Savitske, Jake Trautmann, Sally Alpini, and Abigail Blanton contributed, as well the internal medicine and soft tissue surgery teams and several fourth-year veterinary students.

Reflecting on the experience, Britz is thankful that he trusted the LATH with Vicky’s recovery.

“I was very impressed with the veterinary care and, particularly, with the communication,” he said. “I told the CEO of my hospital that we, as physicians, can learn something from the way Texas A&M handled the communication and made sure I was informed about everything.”

Likewise, Trimble is grateful that Britz and his barn manager ensured that Vicky arrived quickly.

“Infants can get sick really quickly; they can be fine one day and then the next day they might need this level of care,” she said. “Fast recognition is important, as well as knowing the normal milestones that a healthy, happy foal should be meeting. If they’re not meeting them, having the owner or the caretaker recognize that and getting them veterinary care is key to the foal surviving.”

 

A foal nurses its mother in a stall at the Large Animal Teaching Hospital.
Vicky nurses her mother while on the way to recovery during a two-week stay at the Large Animal Teaching Hospital at Texas A&M University.

Photo by Jason Nitsch ’14/Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

Media contact: Jennifer Gauntt, jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu, 979-862-4216

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