Dummy Foals

My mare suffered a dystocia and the foal had to be taken to a local veterinary hospital for care. The veterinarian termed him a dummy foal, but said his chances of being a normal adult were very good. What can you tell me about a dummy foal?
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Q: My mare suffered a dystocia and the foal had to be taken to a local veterinary hospital for care. The veterinarian termed him a “dummy” foal, but said his chances of being a normal adult were very good. What can you tell me about a “dummy” foal?


A: The term “dummy” foal is one that is given to foals that act “dumb” at birth, or even hours thereafter. You might have heard them referred to as wanderers, barkers, or sleepers. However you know this condition, all these syndromes fall under the broad category of neonatal maladjustment syndrome. While the cause of this condition is not fully understood, what happens is that the tissues of the brain essentially hemorrhage and there is swelling around the nerve cells of the brain due to edema. Hemorrhages may result from low oxygen concentrations (hypoxia) in the blood and episodes of low and/or high blood pressure surges in the blood circulating through the brain. Metabolic insult can include hypoxemia, low glucose, and electrolyte imbalances.

Some of these “dummy” foals are normal at birth, then suffer a seizure, followed by a lack of the suckling response. Seizures may be the result of inflammation associated with septicemia that establishes itself in the central nervous system. In addition, seizures can be caused by trauma during or after birth, which should be kept in mind when treating the foal. At birth there is an incomplete blood/brain barrier, which essentially means that if there is an infection in the bloodstream, it can make its way to the central nervous system. If these infections cross the barrier into the brain, they can cause inflammation. For example, you would not expect an older foal which develops a lung infection to have a seizure, but a newborn foal which develops the same infection could have a seizure because the blood/brain barrier has not yet formed. This membrane develops and becomes a true barrier in the first couple weeks of life, after which time infections and toxic insults will no longer easily pass from the bloodstream to the brain.

Foals with neonatal maladjusted syndrome will behave abnormally for a number of reasons, such as a lack of oxygen due to dystocia, low glucose levels in the blood, septicemia, or other susceptibility due to the failure to receive adequate colostrum. These problems which can lead to a “dummy” foal, or neonatal maladjustment syndrome foal, are accompanied by symptoms that range from mild to severe

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Written by:

William Bernard, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, is an equine medicine specialist with Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky.

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