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Identifying A Dummy Foal: Know the SignsBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · May 29, 2015

If you’ve ever seen a severely affected dummy foal, it may be hard to believe that diagnosis is sometimes difficult. The truth is, the signs exhibited by a dummy foal can be so mild even the most seasoned breeder might initially miss them. According to Peter Huntington, B.V.Sc., M.A.C.V.Sc., director of nutrition at Kentucky Equine Research in Australia, not all foals are born dummies and there are few “classic” cases.

“Dummy foal actually refers to a condition called neonatal maladjustment syndrome, which is a catch-all term to describe foals that have behavioral and neurological abnormalities not attributable to infectious, toxic, congenital, metabolic, or developmental disorders,” explains Huntington.

There are multiple causes of neonatal maladjustment syndrome and several acronyms for the condition, including barkers, wanderers, dummies, or convulsants.

In extreme cases, after a difficult birth for example, a dummy foal is almost always obvious. Such foals may:

  • Have difficulty standing or are unable to stand;
  • Have opisthotonus (severe flexion of the body);
  • Be blind and disoriented;
  • Suffer seizures; and
  • Be stuporous.

Mild cases, however, are not nearly so obvious.

“Some foals that are ultimately diagnosed as dummies can actually appear normal at birth and show no evidence of central nervous system disease until several hours or even days after birth,” says Huntington.

In these milder cases, the foals slowly begin to develop the following:

  • Loss of affinity for the mare;
  • Wandering, getting stuck in corners;
  • Decreased nursing and suckling reflex;
  • Facial spasms, lip curling, and chomping; and
  • Falling into deep sleeps and are difficult to arouse.

As mentioned above, foals with a history of a difficult birth or dystocia are at risk of neonatal maladjustment syndrome. In addition, foals born to mares with gestational problems (e.g., vaginal discharge suggesting a placental infection, colic), premature milk letdown, shorted gestational length, and premature placental separation (red-bag birth). A diagnosis of neonatal maladjustment syndrome can only be made once “other” causes of illness in foals have been ruled out, and concomitant issues, such as septicemia—bacteria in the bloodstream—need to be diagnosed and treated appropriately as well. This latter point is particularly important considering that approximately half of all dummy foals have septicemia.

Once your veterinarian has affirmed your foal is in fact a dummy, aggressive treatment results in a positive outcome in the majority of cases.