Innovative feeding system a step up from hand-rearing orphan foals

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Week-old Sam on arrival at Paccombe Farm. His mother died after suffering birthing complications.
Week-old Sam on arrival at Paccombe Farm. His mother died after suffering birthing complications. © The Donkey Sanctuary

A pioneering suckling system for orphan foals developed by a British-based equine charity is working a treat for the natural development of hand-raised youngsters.

It was developed after a week-old orphan foal was relinquished into the care of international animal welfare charity The Donkey Sanctuary.

Young Sam, whose mum had died after suffering birthing complications, was initially hand-reared with bottle feeds every three to four hours. The team caring for Sam noticed potentially concerning behaviours developing, such as rearing up and biting in a playful manner, and the decision was taken to adapt the artificial suckling system to replace hand rearing.

Male donkeys can be extremely playful, often engaging in aggressive play well into adulthood. Foals learn a great deal about the world by biting things and interacting with them in this way. Bottle-reared foals may exhibit more of this behaviour because of incorrect handling, such as being pushed away, which the foal interprets as positive, playful attention.

The idea came from one of the charity’s grooms who had experience in the agriculture sector and had seen an artificial suckling system used to rear newborn lambs.

The artificial feeding system is simple, consisting of a plastic tube leading from an enclosed milk bucket to a lamb bottle teat attached to a stable door at an appropriate height. The Heatwave Milk Warmer uses a heat exchange technology to heat milk on demand as it passes through the machine.

The artificial suckling system set-up and operation.
The artificial suckling system set-up and operation. © The Donkey Sanctuary

On the artificial system, Sam’s milk formula was accessible 24 hours a day. Detailed monitoring revealed that he suckled at a very variable rate throughout a 24-hour period, replicating natural rearing behaviour. Sam also suckled at times without taking in milk, demonstrating that suckling behaviour is a key part of maternal nurturing.

Foals are dependent on a milk-based diet for at least three to four months of life, which has significant cost and resource implications for equine sanctuaries.

The automatic feeding system not only allows the foal to self-administer and potentially feed more naturally, but research[1] also shows ad lib feeding may also promote healthier growth and development.

The system also allowed for 24-hour camera monitoring and the team caring for Sam observed other activities replicating the natural behaviour of foals. These included head butting the teat, chewing or rubbing the teat and staying close by even when not feeding – all behaviours considered to be non-nutritive suckling and similar to when foals stay close to their mothers in the first five months of life.

Sam flourished in the overall care of The Donkey Sanctuary and recently reached the age where the team could consider him for rehoming. As a quirk of fate, the charity matched him to one of its ‘quality time volunteers’, who helped look after him at the charity’s Paccombe Farm, where he lived.

The artificial feeding system was adapted so successfully for Sam that The Donkey Sanctuary Ireland used it to help rear a rejected foal named Bugsy, when he came into their care.

Bugsy drinking from the modified suckling system.
Bugsy drinking from the modified suckling system. © The Donkey Sanctuary

The Irish team further adapted the system, building a structure to house the suckling equipment with space for the foal to enter and reach the teat.

This was an improvement on the original system, as it allowed Bugsy to live with similarly aged companions without disrupting the feeding system. This in turn minimised social isolation, which can compound the development of behavioural problems.

Ben Hart, The Donkey Sanctuary’s Senior Lead Behaviour and Human Behaviour Change, said that although rare, orphaned foals are one of the greatest challenges to equid care and welfare.

“Hand-rearing is often the only option for equine sanctuaries when an orphan arrives. However, too much inappropriate handling from humans can result in behavioural issues as the foal grows.

“Developing this artificial feeding system, which mimics the natural environment, is a great example of how team collaboration, academic excellence and lateral thinking can significantly improve not only the health, welfare and behavioural development of donkeys in our care but also equines around the world who can learn from our pioneering work.”

Survey of biochemical and oxidative profile in donkey foals suckled with one natural and one semi-artificial technique
Pasquale De Palo, Aristide Maggiolino, Marzia Albenzio, Elisabetta Casalino, Gianluca Neglia, Gerardo Centoducati, Alessandra Tateo. 2018 – https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0198774

Sam, at right, at his current Guardian home with his friends Roger and Coco. They live with Wendy and Mark Lockett in Devon.
Sam, at right, at his current Guardian home with his friends Roger and Coco. They live with Wendy and Mark Lockett in Devon. © The Donkey Sanctuary

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