Delank, K., Reese, S., Erhard, M. et al. 2023. Behavioral and hormonal assessment of stress in foals (Equus caballus) throughout the weaning process. PLOS ONE 18(1), e0280078.

This study had the aim to demonstrate the midterm effects (three weeks) of weaning on foals’ welfare. For this purpose, foals’ behavioral changes and fecal levels metabolites of cortisol were evaluated. The observations took place at the state stud farm of Baden-Wuerttemberg in Germany. Ten foals (six colts and four fillies) were observed from one day before weaning up until three weeks after weaning. Weaning was divided into three blocks, the first in September, the second in October, and the last in November. The behavioral observation was done during an eight-hour period between 7:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. The observer documented the exact behavior shown by the foal every five minutes during the eight hours. To scale the stress experienced by the foal, the glucocorticoid metabolite 11,17-dioxoandrostane was measured with the 11-oxoetiocholanolone enzyme immunoassay, which allows assessing the foal’s plasma cortisol level changes throughout the trail through fecal samples. All foals displayed a distinct hormonal stress response to the weaning process through increased fecal cortisol metabolite levels. Their body posture distribution took a shift from mainly moving before weaning to mainly standing during the three weeks after weaning. Compared with the day before weaning, the foals showed less active behavior and significantly increased their resting behavior. Regarding the overall resting behavior, the weaned foals initially increased their time spent resting in a lying position during daytime and then started to decrease the time lying. After weaning, the foals showed a significant increase in resting while standing. In conclusion, the foals showed an expected behavioral development and an expected curve of cortisol metabolite values throughout the study. However, it seemed that the changes had not returned “back to normal” at three weeks after weaning. Therefore, we suggest that weaned foals need a minimum of three weeks to acclimate to the new situation.

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