Viral video showing the squeeze in use are bringing research into the spotlight.
It looks almost like some sort of trained trick performance: veterinarians “harness” a detached-appearing foal with a soft rope, apply some gentle pressure and the foal lays right down. In just twenty minutes, the ropes are removed and the foal clambers to his feet, suddenly alert, responsive and interested in his mother.
This is no trick: this is the Madigan foal squeeze technique in use, helping a foal suffering from neonatal maladjustment syndrome (often called “dummy” foal syndrome) to recover and lead a normal, happy, healthy life. The technique is named for its developer James Madigan, a US Davis veterinary professor and expert in equine neonatal health. With UC Davis veterinary neurologist Monica Aleman, Madigan sought answers about how “dummy” foal syndrome occurred.
“Dummy” foals tend to be detached, unresponsive and confused; they may not recognize their own mothers and typically have trouble nursing. Many of these foals can be brought through the syndrome with constant care and round-the-clock feeding, but it’s a stressful and work-intensive process for everyone involved.
The longstanding cause of neonatal maladjustment syndrome was believed to be oxygen deprivation during the birthing process — but most foals with neonatal maladjustment syndrome typically make it through the disorder with no lingering affects, unlike what one might typically expect with an oxygen-deprived animal.
Madigan and Aleman identified neurosteroids in the foal’s bloodstream that act as a sedative, keeping the foal quiet in utero until birth. As prey animals, it’s critical for a foal to be able to get on his feet and be ready to run within hours of birth, so the foal needs to stop producing the neurosteroids as he is born. Madigan and Aleman’s theory is that the physical pressure of birth is that important indicator — backed up by the supporting evidence that foals born via Caesarean section or an unusually quick birth have a higher frequency of neonatal maladjustment syndrome, and foals suffering from the syndrome have higher levels of neurosteroids in their bloodstream.
The rope harness in the Madigan foal squeeze technique mimics the natural pressure of birth; with about 20 minutes of pressure, imitating the length of time a foal would typically be in the birth canal, most foals rise to their feet alert, ready to interact with their dam and nurse on their own:
These discoveries with foals may also provide some information for human babies born with autism; researchers at UC Davis are studying a possible link.
For more information about the Madigan squeeze technique and the research links with human autism, see “Newborn Horses Give Clues to Autism.”