Somewhere between when the birthing process begins and when the long-legged foal takes his first wobbly steps, he transitions from an unconscious fetus to a conscious horse. And while owners might just be happy to see their new arrival waking up to the world, researchers now believe that the fetal consciousness transition could have a significant impact on neonatal health.

John Madigan, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, ACAW, professor in the Department of Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, presented a lecture entitled "Why Foals Don’t Gallop in Utero: Studies in Transitions of Fetal Consciousness with Implications for Neonatal Health," at the 2013 American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Forum, held June 12-15 in Seattle, Wash.


For many years, Madigan said, veterinarians and researchers believed neonatal maladjustment syndrome (or NMS, also known as dummy foal syndrome) to be caused by pre-, intra-, or postnatal hypoxia (lack of oxygen). This oxygen deprivation results in neurologic deficits, behavioral abnormalities, and sometimes death.

Madigan said common clinical signs are consistent with brain hypoxia and include:

  • Altered states of consciousness, ranging from mild mental deficits to coma;
  • Abnormal behavior, including lack of affinity for the mare, not nursing, excessive vocalizations, and wandering;
  • Blindness; and
  • Paroxysmal (spasmodic or seizurelike) behaviors.

"Histopathologic (microscopic) evidence of cerebral hemorrhage and hypoxia has been detected