Fetal morphological features and abnormalities associated with equine early pregnancy loss

Equine Vet J. 2021 May;53(3):530-541. doi: 10.1111/evj.13340. Epub 2020 Sep 19.


Background: Early pregnancy loss (EPL) occurs in approximately 8% of equine pregnancies, although the aetiology is mostly unknown and embryonic/fetal morphological abnormalities associated with EPL are not defined.

Objectives: To compare the morphology of EPL to clinically normal embryos/fetuses and previously described embryonic/fetal developmental milestones. To identify morphological abnormalities associated with equine EPL.

Study design: Observational case-control study.

Methods: Embryos/fetuses were obtained from clinically normal Thoroughbred and pony pregnancies (n = 11) and following EPL from Thoroughbred mares (n = 27). The crown-rump length (CRL) of embryos/fetuses was measured and macroscopic morphology and developmental age were determined independently by three blinded examiners. Sagittal sections of EPL (n = 13) and control (n = 6) embryos/fetuses were assessed microscopically. Fisher's exact test was used to determine significance (P < .05) and correlations were expressed by Pearson coefficient.

Results: Age and CRL were strongly positively correlated in clinically normal Thoroughbred and reference (n = 15, R = .9 (95% CI: 0.8-1.0), R2 = .9, P < .0001) but not EPL embryos/fetuses (n = 19, R = .1 (95% CI: -0.4 to 0.5), R2 = .01, P = .75). Relative to controls, the CRL of EPL embryos/fetuses was smaller, with evidence of intrauterine growth retardation (IUGR) in 3/8 fetuses assessed. In 9/13 EPL embryos/fetuses, nonspecific neural tissue alterations were identified including disruption of developing pros-, mes- and rhombencephalon and the presence of haemosiderin, indicating premortem haemorrhage. Failed neural tube closure was identified in 1/13 EPL embryos/fetuses. Subcutaneous haemorrhage was present in 14/27 EPL embryos/fetuses.

Main limitations: Autolysis significantly affected 15/27 EPL embryos/fetuses, excluding them from complete assessment. The IUGR reference cut-off values were based on a small number of controls.

Conclusions: Morphological features associated with equine EPL were a mismatch between embryonic/fetal size and age, and alterations of the developing neural tissue and localised subcutaneous haemorrhage. Failed neural tube closure was confirmed as a rare specific abnormality.

Keywords: developmental abnormalities; equine reproduction; fetus; horse; pregnancy outcome.

MeSH terms

  • Abortion, Veterinary*
  • Animals
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Crown-Rump Length
  • Female
  • Fetal Growth Retardation / veterinary
  • Fetus
  • Gestational Age
  • Horse Diseases* / etiology
  • Horses
  • Pregnancy