Sweetie’s story: Two-for-one surprise
I watched as the veterinary student assigned to “Sweetie” presented her medical case. A mare of average build, Sweetie was chestnut with a little bit of white, 15 hands tall, middle-aged with a quiet demeanor. She had sustained a bad laceration, and her loving (but neophyte) owners were willing and able to do whatever it took to fix it.
The student explained about the surgery Sweetie had undergone and relayed information about her treatment plan. Then, the veterinary technician asked when Sweetie was due to foal. The student looked puzzled. The other students were quiet as the attending veterinarian informed us that the mare was not pregnant. The experienced technician and I looked at each other in surprise— we had both foaled out a number of mares for clients, as well as our own. Sweetie clearly had a very large abdomen.
“When did the owners acquire her?” I asked. “They rescued her back in October, and she was thin at that time,” the student explained.
The attending veterinarian broke in: “But she doesn’t have any udder development, so she can’t be pregnant.”
I posed another question: “Has she been eating fescue?” A fungus that infects this type of grass, common in the area, can interfere with gestational hormone signaling, resulting in reduced or absent milk production, prolonged pregnancy and problems during the birth process. No one knew if she had been eating fescue or not.
We brought out an ultrasound machine and I placed the probe against Sweetie’s belly. Sure enough, there were legs, ribs and a tiny heartbeat. This mare had been through general anesthesia during late term pregnancy. The owners had no idea.
With a bit of investigation, we learned that the mare had been eating fescue, which had halted her milk production. Sweetie was discharged from the hospital with medication to help counteract the toxin from the fescue, strict feeding guidelines, information about the birthing process and an appointment for the next week with the reproduction specialists to help more closely determine an expected due date.
That appointment turned out to be unnecessary because her owners called early the very next morning—she foaled at home. She had a beautiful, perfect foal but no milk. They returned to the veterinary teaching hospital where a dedicated team looked after Sweetie and her colt for another week. Sweetie finally came into milk, and the colt thrived.
A mare with a surprise pregnancy is not uncommon in rescue situations, even when the mare is thin. This case had a good outcome, partially because of the bad luck that landed Sweetie in the hospital in the first place, and partially because her owners and the veterinary team worked closely to ensure she had everything she needed. When Sweetie’s people rescued her, they were 100 percent committed. It is wonderful when people commit in this way to horses, even if their monetary value may not be high.