At first, everything seems fine: Your foal was born without incident and started nursing as he should. But two days later, the baby quit suckling and began acting strangely–wandering around and pressing his head against the stall wall. Your youngster could have “dummy foal syndrome,” one of the most common and costly problems requiring intensive foal care.


Something’s Amiss


Dummy foal syndrome is a term applied to foals who demonstrate abnormal behaviors during the first few days of life, says Fairfield T. Bain, DVM, MBA, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVP, ACVECC, of Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky. “In reality, it really is a vague set of clinical signs that probably represent a collection of different disorders, from true birth asphyxia with abnormal brain function to other medical or surgical illnesses that result in a weak or sleepy foal that may show signs such as lack of affinity for the mare or seizures,” he notes.


This medical condition is more formally known as neonatal maladjustment syndrome or hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy, says Carla Sommardahl, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, assistant professor of equine medicine and pathology at the University of Tennessee Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Other common names for the condition have been wanderer foal or barker foal (because foals were reported to have abnormal vocalizations).


The exact cause is unknown, but it appears to involve asphyxia, or lack of oxygen, from any condition or illness in the mare or foal that leads to a decrease in oxygen or blood supply (ischemia) to the foal’s brain or other organs during late gestation, delivery, or the early neonatal period, Sommardahl explains. She cites several causes:



  • Maternal anemia, lung disease, cardiovascular disease, or hypotension (low blood pressure) secondary to endotoxemia or colic.
  • Cases secondary to plac