Meet the Tipperary equine vet during foaling time in Kildare

Troytown GreyAbbey's equine vet Sarah O'Dwyer shares stories about the joys and the trials of getting through the foaling season

Sarah O'Dwyer at Troytown Greyabbey in Kildare
Sarah O'Dwyer at Troytown Greyabbey in Kildare
Siobhan English

Siobhan English

Early starts and late nights, sometimes with little or no sleep. It's a familiar pattern of a large animal vet at this time of year. You would be hard pushed to catch a 30-minute conversation with them on any given day. This is their peak season and there's no time for idle chat.

I was lucky, then, to grab a quick coffee last week with equine vet Sarah O'Dwyer as she went about her day job at Troytown GreyAbbey in Kildare.

One of a team of 15 vets working at the equine hospital and diagnostic centre, the Thurles native is highly respected in her field having specialised in the area of foaling now for well over a decade.

A graduate of veterinary medicine in UCD in 2004, Sarah knew from the outset that horses would be her chosen field once qualified. However, it didn't start out that way.

"I first wanted to do science teaching and got enough points for that, but then decided to re-sit my Leaving Certificate to study veterinary," she explained.

"Sadly I missed out on it by five points and instead ended up going to the UK to start a degree in pharmacy, which I didn't like at all.

Equine vet Sarah O'Dwyer
Equine vet Sarah O'Dwyer

"In the meantime my father, Kevin, who is a teacher, decided to have some of my papers re-checked. I was only in Sunderland a few weeks when I was told to return home as I had gained another 15 points and a place at UCD. Only for him I wouldn't be here."

Following five years of intensive studying during which she specialised in horses, the 38-year-old later went on to gain further experience at Scone Equine Hospital, the largest of its kind in Australia. During her time there she won the coveted Clovelly internship to spend six months in the intensive care unit.

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"I initially only went to Australia for three months but ended up staying six years. I was very lucky to have spent some great years there and worked under some fantastic vets such as Jane Axon and Jon Palmer," she said.

Sarah returned to live in Ireland permanently in 2012, and has been based at Troytown GreyAbbey ever since.

A new foal
A new foal

"From February until June during the thoroughbred breeding season here in Kildare, we are pretty much flat out," she said of her role at the clinic.

Once foaling kicks off, Sarah and her team are on call 24 hours a day, assisting with any complications or illnesses. They can treat anything up to 10 mares and foals a week.

"So far this year we have seen about 80 mares and foals at the clinic - everything from head traumas, to c-sections."

Caesareans in mares are not routine and carried out only in extreme cases of dystocia where the foal cannot be delivered normally. "My priority is always the welfare of the mare and foal," she said.

An expensive procedure, costing upwards of €3,000, sadly though even this surgery cannot always guarantee a live foal.

"Most mares can foal on their own without complication, but unlike cattle and sheep, they are very unforgiving if something goes wrong. You have such a small window of time to correct it."

Sarah outlines a typical day. "I am usually up at 6am to visit a local stud farm. I then get to the clinic at 8am and proceed to check all the mares and foals that are there being treated. I go through the treatment plan and, if needed, take blood samples.

"Overnight we have a dedicated team of nurses and interns who attend to them every hour, or every 15 minutes if they are really sick."

At this time of year the bulk of their clients are from the thoroughbred industry, but from time to time they also get half-bred mares and foals.

Foaling at Troytown Greyabbey in Kildare
Foaling at Troytown Greyabbey in Kildare

During the day Sarah can treat anything from a 'dummy foal' to one with fractured ribs (usually sustained during foaling) or contracted tendons. No two days are the same, but Sarah is always looking for new challenges.

"I am constantly learning and recently completed my exams in internal medicine. Next year I hope to study cardiology."

In the meantime she continues to share her knowledge with students at the Irish National Stud, while also giving regular lectures to young breeders.

Not one to rest on her laurels, Sarah also hopes to make time this summer to get her trailer licence before she heads off to Mongolia in August to officiate as one of 10 international vets for the world-famous horse race, the Mongol Derby.

"I'm not one for wasting time in this life - I want to do as much as I can. Even my driving is fast!" she concluded.

'Some foals bounce back from rotavirus, but others don't'

The recent bad weather has seen a sharp rise in the number of foals being presented to vets with varying degrees of diarrhoea, leading to dehydration.

"The muddy wet conditions are affecting a lot of foals that come in to us," commented Sarah O'Dwyer.

While foals being attended to by the team at Troytown GreyAbbey receive round-the-clock care, Sarah says it is vital for owners to act swiftly if their foals at home are showing signs of diarrhoea.

"Rotavirus is always prevalent at this time of year and is highly contagious. Some foals bounce back from it, but others don't." Typical signs include diarrhoea, lethargy, anorexia, and abdominal distension.

Unlike the canine rotavirus which can be transmitted to humans, the equine rotavirus is species specific and known to only really affect young foals.

In recent weeks Sarah has also seen several cases of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum which mainly affects very young foals. This bacterium lives in the soil as well as the intestinal tract of many normal birds and mammals, including the horse.

Clinical signs include severe abdominal pain or colic, foul smelling and sometimes bloody diarrhoea and dehydration.

Foals can appear healthy at birth, but the disease is rapidly progressive and associated with a high mortality rate.

Sarah notes that breeders are still struggling to get their mares back in foal due to the bad spring. "The wet, cold weather will always affect their cycles, but hopefully if it picks up soon breeders can get back on track."

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