Reasons for performing study: The foal requires an active hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis for organ maturation and post natal survival. Prenatal administration of synthetic glucocorticoids may provide an effective method for inducing fetal maturation safely in the mare.
Objectives: To determine whether dexamethasone administered to late pregnant mares: 1) will induce fetal maturation and precocious delivery; 2) is safe to use and 3) to identify endocrine responses in the mare and foal.
Methods: Pregnant Thoroughbred mares received either 100 mg dexamethasone i.m. (treated n = 5) or 50 ml saline i.m. (control n = 5) at 315, 316 and 317 days of gestation. Plasma progestagens, cortisol and prostaglandin F2α metabolite (PGFM) concentrations were measured before and after treatment. The foals were weighed, the crown-rump length (CRL) measured and an adrenal stimulation test performed on Day 1.
Results: Dexamethasone significantly (P<0.01) reduced gestation length in treated mares without apparent adverse effects. Plasma progestagens increased (P<0.05), and cortisol and PGFM (P<0.05) decreased, following dexamethasone treatment compared with control mares. Foals were clinically mature but those from dexamethasone treated mares had reduced (P<0.05) CRL, but not bodyweights, compared with controls. Their cortisol concentrations increased following exogenous adrenocorticotrophic hormone stimulation but 2 foals from dexamethasone treated mares showed evidence of adrenal suppression.
Conclusions: Dexamethasone stimulates precocious fetal maturation and delivery in healthy late pregnant mares. However, fetal HPA activity may be suppressed.
Potential relevance: Dexamethasone treatment could be used to improve foal viability in mares at risk of preterm delivery. The endocrine effects of such a therapy must be evaluated before clinical intervention with glucocorticoids can be recommended.