Although every horse owner (and horse!) is thrilled to see the lush, green grass of springtime emerging after the grassless muddy fields of winter, Dr. Green can bring problems of his own in the form of laminitis.
But what is laminitis and how can you manage it?
What is laminitis?
Laminitis is a painful inflammatory condition of the horse’s feet.
The horse’s hoof is comprised of an exterior layer of horn and an inner layer of sensitive tissue called laminae. In horses and ponies with laminitis, the flow of blood to the laminae is disrupted, resulting in swelling within the hoof, pain, and severe lameness.
Because the laminae are starved of oxygenated, nutrient-rich blood, the tissue cells become damaged.
Unless you commence immediate treatment, the laminae will die.
The laminae are responsible for providing support to the pedal bone within the horse’s foot, and therefore supporting his weight. If the laminae are weak, the pedal bone is without any support and, if left untreated, will drop and rotate downwards.
In severe cases of laminitis, the pedal bone can burst through the sole, leaving euthanasia as the only option.
Once a horse has had laminitis, he is usually prone to it. In many cases, chronic laminitics are unable to stay in work or are humanely destroyed to prevent further suffering.
How to tell if your horse has laminitis
Laminitis goes through several stages.
It’s important that you can recognize the early signs of the condition so that you can take immediate action to prevent the problem worsening.
Early signs of possible laminitis developing include:
- The horse lays down and is reluctant to stand because of the pain in his feet.
- The horse may be slightly “footy” or lame with slight warmth in one or more of his feet, typically in front.
Laminitis is usually an acute condition. That means its onset is rapid and extremely painful.
Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial to the horse’s recovery if you’re to prevent the condition from becoming chronic.
In cases of acute laminitis, you may notice the following signs:
- The horse is unwilling to get up and is reluctant or unable to walk.
- When standing, the horse leans back onto his hind feet in an attempt to relieve the pressure and pain in his forefeet.
- When walking, the horse will put his heels down first, rather than his toes.
- You will notice a strong and increased digital pulse in the horse’s foot.
Chronic laminitis can be a real problem. The horse will experience repeated attacks of mild laminitis that can be triggered by slight dietary changes.
Horses with chronic laminitis often exhibit a few telltale signs, including:
- slight lameness, usually in front
- warmth of the hoof wall
- growth rings around the hoof, indicative of previous bouts of laminitis
- the heel of the foot will often grow faster than the toe
- the white line of the hoof may have widened
- the horse may have a large crest that runs right down his neckline
To prevent your horse from contracting laminitis, you’ll need to know what causes the condition.
What causes laminitis?
Any horse can be affected by laminitis, regardless of age, sex, and breed. There are several classic triggers for the disease:
Too much sugar and starch in the diet
An excess of sugar and starch overloads the horse’s digestive system, causing undigested matter to be pushed through to the hindgut.
Acidity is then created as the starches and sugars break down, and that acidity then kills the bacteria that digest fiber.
The dying bacteria release toxic substances that pass into the bloodstream where they disrupt blood flow, causing laminitis.
Horses who are moved to a new yard, are frequent travelers, or have just foaled are all at risk of physical stress, which can cause a bout of laminitis.
Horses in fast work on hard surfaces can suffer trauma to the sensitive laminae, sometimes triggering laminitis.
Cushing’s disease is associated with an abnormality in the pituitary gland. In addition to symptoms such as a curly coat, weight loss, and excessive thirst, Cushing’s cases often develop laminitis.
How is laminitis treated?
If you think your horse is showing signs of laminitis, you must call your vet immediately. The sooner you begin treating your horse, the less likely it is that the feet will sustain lasting damage.
Give your horse clean, fresh water, but remove any food, especially sugary molasses licks.
Make sure your horse is not stressed by providing him with a nearby companion, and make sure his bed is deep and comfortable so that he can lay down if he wants to.
You may need the assistance of a good remedial farrier who works under your vet’s supervision to correct any pedal bone rotation and keep your horse’s feet in the best condition to facilitate recovery.
How can laminitis be prevented?
There are a few easy ways to prevent your horse from suffering from laminitis:
- Feed your horse according to his type and workload.
- Understand how the horse’s digestive system works, and try to mimic his natural feeding pattern.
- Restrict your horse’s intake of lush, green grass, especially in the spring and fall when the grass is loaded with sugars. It’s a good idea to provide a bare paddock for horses that show signs of laminitis so that they can enjoy some freedom without risk of over-eating.
- Manage the horse’s diet but NEVER be tempted to starve him. Starvation can lead to serious health issues such as hyperlipaemia.
- Feed only high fiber, low sugar, and low carbohydrate foodstuffs.
- Only feed hard feed to horses that are in regular, hard work.
- Prevent obesity by devising an exercise program for your horse.
- Make changes to your horse’s diet gradually over a couple or three weeks.
- Be sure that to worm your horse regularly.
- Have your horse’s feet trimmed regularly by a good farrier.
- Treat medical conditions such as infections and colic promptly, as these can result in the release of toxins that could trigger a bout of laminitis.
Laminitis is a preventable condition that can be avoided through correct feeding, regular exercise, and good pasture management.
Do you have a horse or pony with laminitis?
If you do, tell us what steps you take to manage your horse’s condition.