The Modern Equine Vet
August 2023
Vol 13 Issue 8 2023
Click Here to View Full Issue


How to Fix the ‘Hypos’ in Critically Ill Neonates

By Paul Basilio

Neonatal calls can produce significant anxiety in even the most experienced equine practitioners. Even before a primary diagnosis can be formulated, triage and stabilization are crucial to helping these fragile patients.

Tiffany L. Hall, DVM, DACVIM, DACVECC, a critical care specialist at the Equine Medical Center of Ocala, in Florida, has plenty of first-hand experience with critical neonates. To arm practitioners with the confidence needed to take care of patients, she recently shared a wealth of information collected from clinical experience, various personal mentors, and the wisdom of other equine neonatologists.

The 7 ‘Hypos’
The field of medicine is awash in acronyms and mnemonic devices to help clinicians keep the important things straight, so it’s no surprise that critically ill equine neonates have their own catchy system.

“The 7 ‘hypos’ are generalized conditions seen in many that result from a variety of underlying pathophysiologies,” Dr. Hall said during a presentation at the 68th AAEP Annual Convention in San Antonio. “This approach to evaluation allows for systemic and goal-directed therapy in emergency situations. After assessing and stabilizing the equine neonate, then you can go back and decide what further diagnostics you need, how to determine the underlying problem, and whether you need to refer the patient.”

Hypoperfusion occurs when the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to tissues is inadequate to meet the body’s demands. In neonates, this is typically due to low blood volume, inappropriate vascular tone, or poor myocardial contractility.

“Perfusion is best assessed through the physical examination,” Dr. Hall said. “Pay particular attention to the perfusion parameters of mentation, distal extremity temperature, metatarsal artery pulse quality, and urine production.”

She added that a hand-held lactatometer can obtain serial lactate measurements to help guide therapy and give an idea of disease severity.

Anything that prevents a foal from nursing within a few hours of birth can lead to rapid hypoglycemia. A standard human glucometer can readily and easily determine glucose concentrations stall-side.

“Most equine neonatologists no longer recommend carte blanche administration of 5% dextrose in the neonatal foal,” she added. “This is based on research in human critical patients, which has demonstrated that rapid changes in glucose concentration can be associated with poorer outcomes.”

All neonates are particularly susceptible to hypothermia, but critically ill neonates are incapable of proper thermal regulation due to a lower metabolic rate relative to their surface area.

“It’s important to note that modest hypothermia is actually considered beneficial, particularly in human critically ill patients undergoing CPR, or in human neonates undergoing treatment for hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy,” Dr. Hall said. “We are unable to actively cool our patients, so instead we allow them to be mildly hypothermic as long as their body temperature is above 96° and they have a normal heart rate.”

Hypoxemia is typically the result of 3 underlying conditions: hypoventilation, a ventilator-perfusion (V/Q) mismatch, and diffusion impairment due to meconium aspiration or severe respiratory disease.

“Modest hypoxemia may be addressed by placing the foal in sternal recumbency,” she explained. “You can also administer intranasal oxygen therapy if it’s available, but it should be used in the short-term in the field unless you have a humidifier.”

Hypoventilation is defined as elevated PaCO2 levels >55 mm Hg. It typically results in respiratory acidosis, associated metabolic responses, cerebral vasodilation and increased intracranial pressure.

Its origins may be neurologic (eg, hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy, neonatal maladjustment syndrome) or neuromuscular (eg, progressive paralysis or fatigue), or it may be associated with musculoskeletal pain or a space-occupying mass.

“It can also be pulmonary in origin,” Dr. Hall explained. “When diffusion impairment becomes so severe in acute respiratory distress syndrome, we do allow a permissive hypercapnia, as long as their mentation is appropriate or the blood pH is >7.25.”

Hypobase and Hypoimmunity
In neonates, hypobase—or acidemia—is generally improved by addressing the other hypos.

For hypoimmunity, there are a multitude of peripartum stressors that could affect colostrum quality and prevent absorption and ingestion of immunoglobulins.

“How we address inadequate passive transfer in a healthy foal depends on a number of factors, including how many foals are on the property, whether the property is a clean environment, and the history of the farm,” Dr. Hall said.

How to fix them
“In the field, you can quickly address many ‘hypos’ by administering antibiotics and plasma, restoring the circulating volume, optimizing ventilation and oxygenation by warming the foal passively, and providing a glucose substitute,” Dr. Hall explained. “It’s been demonstrated in human studies that the number one factor that improves outcomes in people presenting to hospitals with sepsis is early administration of antimicrobials.”

Many equine neonatologists agree that antimicrobials should be administered in the field prior to referral, although this wasn’t always the case. In the past, a practitioner might hesitate in administering antibiotics before the referral center could obtain a blood culture.

“We no longer worry about that,” she said. “We’d rather have the antibiotics on board. We can still get our blood cultures—there are special bottles that can [do that], even if the horse has received antibiotics.”

The combination of beta-lactam and an aminoglycoside is the gold standard, with ampicillin and amikacin the top preferences. Procaine penicillin G can be swapped for ampicillin if needed, and cephalosporin is a second-tier option.

Most foals are also going to require intravascular fluids. Dr. Hall recommends a crystalloid administered over a period of about 20 minutes.

“Critically ill foals are at an exceptionally high risk of fluid overload, so I recommend that you don’t exceed 40 mL/kg in the first hour of administration,” she explained. “If you are giving plasma, always remember to include that in your total volume.”

For a glucose substitute, the easiest way is to administer mare’s milk through a tube if the foal is not nursing.

“A critically ill foal’s GI tract might not be functioning normally, so you may also administer 3 to 5 mL of 50% dextrose orally over the mucus membranes while you gain IV access,” Dr. Hall said. “Frequent fluctuations in glucose negatively impact outcomes in humans, so I recommend that you give 1% dextrose solutions—or at least do not exceed 2% dextrose—as a single bolus over 20 minutes.”

Finally, optimization of ventilation and oxygen can be achieved by placing the foal in sternal recumbency. Ventilation is typically addressed with chemical or mechanical ventilation in the field.

“The easiest way to do this is to administer caffeine at 10 mg/kg orally once,” she said. “That will help stimulate the central respiratory center and increase respiratory rate.”

Dr. Hall noted that caffeine administration is not recommended for all foals. The best candidates are foals who pause anywhere from 10 to 20 seconds between breaths.

“After you’ve completed your initial assessment and performed some of these therapies to stabilize the foal, you can circle back and do a more in-depth investigation to determine the underlying condition and determine whether the foal should be referred,” Dr. Hall said. MeV


• Hypoperfusion
• Hypoglycemia
• Hypothermia
• Hypoxemia
• Hypoventilation
• Hypo-base
• Hypo-immunity


Circulating volume

  • 20 mL/kg crystalloid
    IV (1 L)
  • Plasma (1-2 L)
  • ≤ 2 L/50 kg in 1 hour


  • Ampicillin 1-2 g IV
    (or PPG 3.5 mL IM)
  • Amikacin: 25 mg/kg
    IV/IM (5 mL/50 kg)
  • Ceftiofur 5 mg/kg IV/IM/SQ (5 mL/50 kg)


  • Sternal recumbency
  • Caffeine 10 mg/kg
    PO once
  • Blanket or heating lamp

Glucose replacement

  • Tube with mare’s milk
  • 2% dextrose in fluids
    (40 mL/1 L)
  • 3.5 mL dextrose PO