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What Is Laminitis?

Laminitis is a condition which is caused by inflammation of the sensitive lamina in the horses’ foot, which joins the pedal bone to the hoof capsule. There are many causes of laminitis but they all result in an acutely painful horse that is painful on its feet (usually the front feet).

What types of horses are prone to getting laminitis?

    1. Diet and pasture associated laminitis. It is seen that horses grazing on fresh spring pasture are at greater risk of developing laminitis than when grazing in autumn/winter. This is due to the higher levels of sugars/carbohydrates in spring grass which can result in inflammatory processes in the gut and feet. However there are also underlying factors that predispose to these effects.
    2. Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS). This “syndrome” is a recent finding which has been linked to laminitis. EMS is similar to human type II diabetes and is mainly seen in obese ponies. These ponies are insulin resistant and therefore have a high level of circulating glucose and fats (triglycerides) in their blood stream. These high levels of glucose and fats cause the production of inflammatory products that spread to feet which in turn results in laminitis. EMS should be investigated as an underlying cause of recurrent laminitis in horses (especially obese ponies) under 15 years of age.
    3. Equine Cushing’s Disease. This disease is more correctly called, “Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID)” as it is caused by a tumour and over activity of the pituitary gland in the horse’s brain. An overactive pituitary gland causes increase production of a hormone called ACTH. This hormone over stimulates the adrenal gland which results in excess production of cortisol (a steroid) in the blood stream. This leads to inflammation in the blood vessels in the feet and laminitis. PPID should be investigated as a cause of recurrent laminitis in older horses (over 15 years of age). These horses also show other signs of the disease such as hirsutism (a long curly coat).
    4. Systemic inflammation and infection. Anything which causes a whole body inflammatory response, such as an infection, can ultimately lead to laminitis. Therefore it is important to check for laminitis in horses which have colic, retained foetal membranes (haven’t cleansed after foaling) or any other infection.
Diagnosing Laminitis

There are a number of tools which we have available in order to diagnose laminitis accurately in order to treat it correctly.

  1. Clinical exam of the horse. This involves examining the feet and determining which feet are affected and the degree of lameness present.
  2. X–ray. We can come out with our portable x-ray machine and radiograph the horse’s feet. After processing the film we can assess the degree of laminitis in the affected feet by calculating the degree of rotation between the pedal bone and the hoof wall. By taking x-rays we can also consult with your farrier with regards to appropriate foot trimming and corrective shoeing.
  3. Blood tests to diagnose Equine Metabolic Syndrome and Equine Cushing’s. These diseases were always present but it is only recently that we have developed the tests to diagnose them. We can take a number of blood tests to diagnose these conditions in order to start the appropriate treatment. With the correct treatment we can get on top of the primary cause of your horse’s laminitis.

Treatment and Management of Laminitis

In the acute and painful horse it is best to manage laminitis with pain relief. It is also important to support the frogs on the affected feet which we can do by taping Frog Supports or padding onto the sole. It is also vital to keep the horse on soft bedding such as sawdust/shavings.

After this initial treatment it may be necessary to x-ray the feet and discuss with your farrier about appropriate foot trimming and corrective shoeing. Some horses with recurrent laminitis require regular foot trimming and long term corrective shoeing.

Diet and correct nutrition is vital in managing and preventing laminitis.

  • Restricted grazing is important for obese ponies with recurrent laminitis. This is most important during spring/summer. This can be done practically by turning the pony out for only a few hours a day and the re-stabling. If the pony will not tolerate stabling then it can be turned out with a grazing muzzle to prevent over grazing.
  • Soaking hay will significantly reduce the starch content and thus the precursors for laminitis. It is advised that horses suffering from laminitis should be fed soaked hay – soaking for 12 hours will significantly reduce the sugar content in the hay. However it is important that the horse be fed enough dry matter in its diet. A good rule of thumb is to feed 2.5 – 3% of the horse’s bodyweight in dry matter per day.
  • Ensure optimum vitamin and mineral supplementation in the feed. Ensure supplementation with vitamin B, vitamin C and biotin in the feed. These vitamins will re-establish the gut flora and act as anti-oxidants to remove inflammatory mediators in the blood.