Monday, March 21, 2011

Birthing Creatures Great and Small

I've now had the opportunity to witness the miracle of birth in at least four different species; humans, cats, chickens and now horses.  Of course, most of my experience has been midwifing for my Maine Coons.  I've delivered over sixty litters of kittens since I started breeding Maine Coons almost nine years ago.  Doing so has given me the confidence to feel as though I could successfully assist with the birth of just about any domesticated land mammal (no whales or dolphins though). 

Boom Boom with her litter of seven in 2006

When a cat is in labor, her entire body is affected by the contractions.  She may push for an hour or more until the first kitten begins to present itself, usually looking like a white grape because the amniotic sac often protrudes initially.  The queen may be silent or she may scream when the going gets tough, not too unlike us humans.  I've often wished I could offer my cats an epidural to relieve the pain, remembering how much I enjoyed the benefits of the drug with the birth of my first child (after four days of dysfunctional labor, I was ready for major drugs).

With a hen, she sits in the nesting box for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to deliver her egg.  My hens' eggs aren't fertile, but the hens still go through labor to lay an egg three to seven times weekly, depending upon the season and the individual hen.  Right before the egg comes out, the hen will often stand up to push.  The egg drops out, slightly damp.  The hen may remain on the nest for a while, but often she jumps off and announces her achievement with a very raucous squawking for several minutes before running out to join the rest of the flock.  No cord to sever, no baby to clean up and make sure is breathing; chickens have it easy except for the fact that they deliver their "babies" almost daily.

I volunteer a couple of days a week at a horse rescue farm, Beech Brook Farm, in Mystic, Connecticut.  One of the rescued mares, Mia, arrived scrawny and with rain rot, a fungal infection of the skin.  Within a few weeks of being well fed, it became apparent that Mia was with foal.  Not knowing when she was bred or by whom (what if the sire was a donkey?), the farm has been on foal watch for the past month.  The foal predictor test which uses the mother's milk, indicated that the foal was due last week.  Unlike cats which have a very narrow window for premature or late delivery around their 65 days of gestation, horses can deliver a few weeks on either side of their average gestation of 340 days.  The owner, Deborah, set up a foal cam in the designated birthing shelter in an effort to be prepared.  She even camped outside overnight with Mia on the weekends.

Last Friday, March 18, was my regular day to volunteer.  I had checked the farm's Facebook page that morning to see if there was a birth announcement, but Deborah had just posted that the foal predictor test had changed color so fast that morning that it was bound to happen that night.  The owner was going by what people who were more experienced at birthing foals had told her, that the babies are usually born at night.  Yeah, right.  That's what they say about cats too.  Babies come when the mother's body is ready to deliver.  Anytime, day or night, full moon or half moon, good weather or bad. 

I knew as soon as I saw Mia that she was going to have her baby that day.  Normally very quiet and reserved, Mia was restless, milk was dripping from her udder.  She lay down, she got back up.  Nancy, the other woman who volunteers with me, said Mia had been behaving that way the day before also, but without the dripping milk.  Not concerned, Nancy left to clean up the upper paddocks and stalls.  I cleaned one stall and kept watch on Mia.  Mia laid back down in her muddy paddock, ignoring her shelter with all the nice clean straw bedding.  I walked across the pasture to take a look at her back end and sure enough, that foal was on its way.  Deborah was at work and couldn't leave, the vet on call was in surgery.  We were on our own for this.  Luckily, it was uncharacteristically warm and sunny for March in Connecticut and about sixty degrees. 

Like I said, I was pretty confident about midwifing, but foals have these long legs and necks which can cause problems if they are presented incorrectly.  They are supposed to arrive in diving position; front feet first, head laying on top of the legs.  I had read all the James Herriott books and horse books years ago about how to reach in and turn babies around if necessary, but I hoped I wouldn't have to do anything like that.  Mia stretched out her front legs, half-sitting up at times to push.  She grunted a little, but otherwise Mia was very stoic.  Fortunately, the birth was textbook perfect.  The foal emerged feet and head first.  We had been instructed not to interfere at all, but I went ahead and broke the amniotic sac which contained the foal like a thin, translucent latex balloon so she could breathe and quickly wiped out her nostrils with a towel.  Mia's delivery went rapidly.  Although I'm sure she was in labor when I arrived at 9:45 am, she started really pushing at 10:30 and the foal was born at 10:45. 

Born on the muddy ground, Mia's foal with her amniotic sac still on her back, hind legs not out yet

Unlike cats, horses can't reach around to watch what's happening back there, nor can they easily clean up their new baby without standing up.  Mia didn't seem to want to stand while she felt something still hanging out of her so the baby stayed with her hind legs still submerged inside her mother for several minutes, wet and trying to maneuver her front legs under her body.  Mia actually looked pleasantly surprised when she sat up enough to look behind her and saw a pretty little Mini-Mia.  She nickered her excitement and tried to reach her baby from her lying down position.  If this were a kitten, the mother cat would be feverishly cleaning it and herself, severing the cord, probably eating the placenta (unless I take it away first) and preparing for the next kitten to arrive while the recently born searches for the milk bar.  Like all the hooved animals, foals have to be independently mobile quickly in order to keep up with the herd.  Born with her eyes open, Mia's foal was standing within 30 minutes.  The umbilical cord broke on its own and the amniotic sac remained hanging out of the mare until the placenta was delivered an hour later.  The foal fell a few times, but somehow managed to get her incredibly long legs under her and working.   In contrast, kittens are more needy at first, don't open their eyes and ears for about a week, standing and running at around 4 weeks.

Standing for the first time

With cats, the placenta follows the kitten within several minutes.  With horses, it can take one or two hours.  The vet arrived about an hour later to check out the new foal and shortly after, Mia lay back down to deliver the placenta.  Of course, it's all in proportion and I later picked up the placenta mass with a pitchfork, its job of nourishing life in the womb over.  Mia seemed relieved that she didn't have to worry about what to do with it.  Eating a placenta must be really gross for a vegetarian, but in the wild, that's what the mothers often do to keep from attracting predators. 

The vet gave mother and foal a shot of penicillin and did a quick exam of both, declaring the foal strong and healthy.  He agreed with me that we had a girl and that sexing kittens is infinitely more difficult than foals or puppies.  I'm still floating with the excitement of being able to watch a foal come into the world, happy that it all worked so well. The foal's back comes up to my hip, to give you an idea of her size.  The farm is having a contest to name the baby and raise funds on their Facebook page if you'd like more information and to participate. 

Mother and Daughter

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