I recently, received an email asking if I had ever heard of a new technique to revive nonresponsive calves?

My answer was, no I had not. So, I did a little searching on the internet and found the following information.

If you raise cattle or horses, you have probably seen it more than once — a beautiful, perfectly formed and apparently healthy calf or foal that just has no interest in engaging in life, or what is called neonatal maladjustment syndrome (NMS). 

Neonatal maladjustment syndrome, or dummy foal syndrome, occurs in 3- 5% of live births. 

With around-the-clock bottle or tube feeding plus intensive care in a veterinary clinic for up to a week or 10 days, 80% of the foals recover. 

But for horse owners, that level of care is grueling and costly. These weak or “dummy” calves/foals are indifferent to stimulus, clumsy, lethargic and have weak or no suckle reflex. Frequently they are the result of a traumatic birth.

As it turns out, there may be a simple, low-cost and effective way to help them, and it does not require a needle, a tube or a chute to administer. The “Madigan Squeeze Technique” (MST) was developed by Dr. John Madigan, a veterinary professor and equine neonatal health expert at the University of California-Davis. 

Madigan developed the technique as a part of his research to assist “dummy” foals with similar, early life malaise.

Madigan’s theory is that when animals travel through the birth canal, it causes a surge of hormones that shut down sedative neurosteroids that keep them calm in the womb. 

Because both cattle and horses are prey species, it is important that they make a quick switch to consciousness so they could theoretically run to safety within a few hours of birth. 

The squeeze through the birth canal is thought to help flip a biochemical “on switch” that helps newborns transition quickly from a sleep-like state in the womb to active engagement outside of it.

If, for some reason, this transition does not occur, the animal remains quiet, depressed and detached.

Amazingly, veterinary researchers have found that they can reduce maladjustment symptoms by using several loops of a soft rope to gently squeeze the newborn’s upper torso and mimic the pressure normally experienced in the birth canal. 

When pressure is applied with the rope, the newborn lies down and appears to be asleep.

After 20 minutes (about the same time a foal would spend in the birth canal) the rope is loosened and the squeeze pressure released.

In initial cases, the newborns have responded well to the procedure and recovered, some rising to their feet within minutes and bounding over to join the mare and nurse.

The researchers suspect that the pressure triggers biochemical changes in the central nervous system that are critical for transitioning the foal from a sleeplike state in the womb to wakefulness at birth.

The technique itself is performed as follows:

1. Wrap a long, soft rope in three concentric loops around the calf/foal’s chest.

2. Gently pull the rope to create pressure around the ribs. The calf/foal should lie down and will enter a sleep-like state with eyes closed, slowed breathing and lowered heart rate.

3. Maintain this position for 20 minutes.

4. Remove the rope and assist the calf in standing.

The MST simulates pressure in the birth canal during the second stage of labor, which typically lasts 20-40 minutes. It is best to perform the technique within a day or two of birth.

Bovine veterinarian Cassie Faull of Old Dominion Veterinary Services, Ruther

Glen, Va., has used the Madigan Squeeze Technique on numerous calves with great success. While she advises it is best to do it the first time with the training of your herd veterinarian, it is definitely a handy skill that can be acquired by experienced calf-raisers.

A video (https://youtu.be/mKbwOv7eQKc) shows the technique being applied to a weak, newborn foal. And an excellent demonstration of how to place the rope can be found there.

A brief study published in the New Zealand Veterinary Journal showed the MST helped two dull, unresponsive calves to wake up, stand and walk toward their dams. 

One calf received the treatment at six hours after birth and one at 20 hours of age. Both were reported to be nursing normally the day after treatment.

According to veterinarian Faull, some calves may need the procedure repeated several times throughout the first few days of life. “The Madigan Squeeze Technique may not save every

calf,” she said. “But it’s an excellent tool to keep in mind, especially after a long delivery or a C-section.”

Madigan says the findings are not without precedent in human medicine, citing anecdotal evidence that tactile pressure appears to also be important for infants.

“There are reports of very sick newborn babies, determined unlikely to survive, making seemingly miraculous, spontaneous recoveries after being placed in the arms of a grieving parent for a last embrace,” Madigan said. “Perhaps those babies benefited from some form of squeeze-induced stimulation or neuroactivation — similar to what we’re seeing in the foals.”

He noted that many hospitals are making newborn “kangaroo care” — immediate skin-to-skin contact with the mother as well as swaddling in a light blanket — standard procedures right after birth.

Premature infant survival is dramatically improved when kangaroo care is implemented, he said.

A new group called the Comparative Neurology Research Group, consisting of veterinarians, physicians, epidemiologists and basic-science researchers, has formed to pursue further studies in this area. Madigan is working with researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine, exploring the mechanisms of post-birth transitions of consciousness related to kangaroo care of infants.


• Weak Calves May Need a Big Squeeze, by Maureen Hanson, Dairy Herd Management.

• Madigan Foal Squeeze Procedure for Neonatal Maladjustment Syndrome, by University of California, Davis.

• Newborn Horses Give Clues to Autism, By Pat Bailey, Human & Animal Health.