You guys are awesome, thank you so much for looking after Taruni. - Sue from Greenbank
Dummy foals, or foals suffering from Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy, are termed so because they act ‘dumb’ at birth, and do not follow the normal behavioural patterns of a newborn foal. It is a broad term which covers many different symptoms and conditions which make a foal act dumb. In many cases it is a temporary condition which can be alleviated through expert veterinary care, often via symptomatic support. Other names given to dummy foals you may have come across include wanderers, sleepers, or barkers (these names reflect some of the symptoms dummy foals may show).
Why are some foals born as ‘dummies’?
A dummy foal is thought to result from a lack of oxygen (usually) or nutrients reaching the brain, either before, during or after birth. Neonatal maladjustment Syndrome has a range of causes, some of these include:
- Placentitis of the mare
- Prolonged &/or difficult birth (dystocia)
- Low glucose levels &/or energy levels, due to inadequte nutrition. Can occur before or after birth, often after birth if the mare and foal are separated. If the foal is lame and lies down often, this may result in malnourishment.
- Risks, such as septicaemia (blood poisoning), posed by an inadequate intake of colostrum
How do I know if my foal is a dummy?
There are many symptoms which may indicate your foal suffers this condition, ranging from mild to severe:
- Inability to suckle the mother, either when they reach the teat, or even just to find the teat
- If managing to suckle, they may dribble themselves, or may not be suckling vigourously or correctly, causing the milk to dribble all over their face
- Foal appears sleepy
- Confusion/disorientation: wandering without purpose
- Bad-temperedness/touchy: they may not have a natural affinity with the mare, grind their teeth, sneeze or snap
- Lying down for too long (a foal should get up every 30 minutes or so)
- An irregular breathing pattern
- Abnormal vocalisation (or barking)
What should I do if I think I have a dummy foal?
If your foal presents as a dummy before its 12-24hr postpartum veterinary check up, call your vet immediately. This is an emergency (we always consider unwell newborn foals to be), so do not fear calling your vet in the middle of the night. Quick treatment by an experienced equine vet can often save your foal’s life.
How will my vet go about treating my foal?
After ascertaining that your foal does indeed suffer from Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy, your vet will attempt to treat the underlying cause as well as provide symptomatic support. Depending on the specific case, the vet may provide the foal with glucose, oxygen and/or plasma therapy. Depending on the severity of your foal’s condition, it may or may not need to come to the clinic for closer medical management. If the foal’s condition is not rectified after days of therapy the vet may assume that a more acute problem has caused haemorrhaging. An example of this could be hydrocephalus (crowned-head foals, or water on the brain), which may not be visible externally. As there are a number of problems with similar results, your vet may need to do some testing to determine the cause and therefore the appropriate treatment.
What is the prognosis for a foal that was born a dummy?
Provided treatment was successful, a horse born a dummy can go on to live a long and fulfilling life, and athletically can perform at the same capacity as those born without incident. Success ultimately comes down to swift and appropriate veterinary treatment, so our message to you is that if your newborn foal appears abnormal in any way, seek veterinary advice immediately.
How can I reduce the risk of a dummy?
It is difficult to prevent a dummy foal due to the vast range of possible causes, but there are a few things you can do. Knowing your mare's breeding history is extremely helpful, especially if she is prone to placentitis or placental separation. Close and appropriate veterinary attention with such mares can hopefully prevent dummy-causing conditions.
It is also extremely important that your mare is scanned 15 days post-serve/ovulation to seek out a twin. At 15 days the foetuses should be big enough to see, yet not quite soft yet (when they begin to stick together), thus proving an easier ‘squeezing’ of one. By ensuring your mare isn’t carrying twins, you can hopefully reduce the risk of a dummy.
As birth is unpredictable, ensure your mare is in a safe and appropriate paddock well before she is due. If the foal is separated from the mare by rolling under a fence, he may become a dummy through lack of colostrum. Having a secure, foal-proof yard is always a safe measure to ensure mum and baby do not become accidentally separated.
An equine birth should be under 30 minutes, from the first signs of straining to the foal being fully-born. It is vital that you call your vet if you feel the birth is taking longer than it should. For more info on what is an appropriate time frame for each stage of a mare’s labour, see our foaling notes. Through ensuring the foal is out quickly, we can reduce the risk of oxygen not making it to the brain, and thus a dummy foal is less likely.
If your foal’s birth was a successful and short one, you should aim to get your vet out between 12 to 24 hours afterwards, provided the foal is normal. It should be bright, alert, walking and drinking well. If you are unsure if your foal is behaving as it should, please call your vet to confirm that all is okay. A foal which appears ‘sleepy’ (and may not appear to be very concerning) is a sign of a very unwell young horse to your vet. If the foal is well and all is clear at their 12-24hr post-partum checks, keep a close eye one them, as Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy can still occur suddenly after this period.