Our understanding of laminitis is improving year on year, yet owners don’t always have the correct up to date information. Running horse first aid courses I have heard many myths around the condition, and this article busts many of these old wives tales that you might have encountered.
Myth 1 – ‘He is just a bit foot sore’
WRONG – Laminitis is an extremely painful condition
The laminitic horse or pony is often dismissed as simply being a bit ‘footy’, but it is in fact an extremely painful condition. It is essential to have the condition diagnosed by your vet, receive appropriate pain medication for your horse, and discuss an action plan which will generally involve your vet and farrier. It is certainly not a condition to self manage, or dismiss as normal for that horse.
Myth 2 – ‘You should starve a laminitic horse or pony’
INCORRECT – The laminitic needs the right nutrients – not starving
The horse or pony suffering from laminitis, or at risk from, is often put on a strict diet but it is a misconception that they need to be starved. They need to be a healthy weight, and they need to be fed a diet low in sugar and starch, however they do need to eat. Secondary issues such as gastric ulcers can be caused by leaving the horse without forage for long periods, and research shows how effective ponies are at compensatory grazing if kept in a ‘starvation paddock’ and then allowed on regular pasture. Recent research has found that introducing up to 30% good quality straw into the horse’s diet can help reduce the calorie intake, without significantly compromising on the quantity of forage ingested.
Myth 3 – ‘You only worry about laminitis in the Springtime
WRONG – Laminitis can occur at any time of the year.
Laminitis is often associated with lush Spring grass, and whilst plenty of cases are seen at this time, laminitis can actually strike at any time of year.
Autumn often sees a rise in laminitis cases, particularly due to a grass flush, and also due to some management changes that are common as the weather becomes cooler. Owners often reach for rugs and additional feed at a time, without realising that the horse probably doesn’t need the extra calories. The days become darker, it can be harder to exercise in the evenings, so many horses have reduced work. Horses may also move to being stabled more, with less turnout time.
Laminitis can also strike in the Winter, particularly during cold sunny spells. When it is sunny the grass produces sugar, but in the cold the grass is unable to use this sugar, so it accumulates, making frosty grass unsuitable for a laminitic horse or pony.
Myth 4 – ‘You don’t need to worry about horses – only ponies get laminitis’
INCORRECT – Laminitis can affect horses and ponies, of all shapes sizes and ages.
Historically small round ponies had laminitis, and horses had other lameness issues. Whilst ponies may be more susceptible to the condition we now understand that over 90% of laminitis cases have an underlying hormonal condition, and when coupled with an environmental trigger (like grass) laminitis strikes. For example if 5 horses and ponies all got into a field full of Spring grass they probably won’t all get laminitis, as they wouldn’t all have hormonal irregularities.
The two conditions that owners should be aware of are Equine Metabolic Syndrome and Equine Cushing’s Disease also known as Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction or PPID. `
Equine Metabolic Syndrome is not restricted to obese horses or ponies, but is often characterised by abnormal fat distribution, with pockets of hard fat forming in set areas on the body, such as the crest, over the shoulders, across the ribs and the top of the tail head. Horses with EMS are unable to regulate insulin well, have increased fasting triglyceride concentrations and altered adipokine concentrations, and are prone to laminitis.
PPID has long been thought to only affect older horses, but it can be noted in horses from 8 or even younger. The condition affects the pituitary gland, and there is an excess of normal hormones produced. PPID can be a reason for seeing more laminitis cases in Autumn, as horses experience natural hormonal changes at this time of year, with an increased concentration in the hormone ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) noted in healthy horses from August to October. Horses with PPID produce excess ACTH and are unable to regulate this, which in turn can make them more predisposed to suffering from laminitis.
Myth 5 – ‘It can’t be laminitis- he isn’t standing in the ‘laminitic stance’
WRONG – Laminitis has a variety of signs and not all cases stand like this.
If you asked a room full of horse owners to name the signs of laminitis most would describe the classic ‘laminitis stance’, with the horse or pony rocked back on its heels. Research has highlighted many sub-clinical signs of laminitis, which if noted in time allow for treatment and management changes before the condition worsens.
Early warning signs of laminitis can include:
- Change their behaviour in the stable
- Banking up bedding under their hooves to take pressure off the front of the hoof
- Appearance of hoof rings on the outside of the hoof – this is likely to indicate changes in the lamellar cells, and may allow a window of time for treatment
We have a far superior knowledge of equine pain, and there are documented facial pain scores which can be used to assess discomfort from laminitis. There are also signs to look for including difficulty turning, shifting of weight on front feet, and in an acute attack the condition can be mistaken for colic.
Owners should be on guard for laminitis year round, and as ever prevention is better than cure. Keeping your horse at a healthy weight is one way to prevent an attack of laminitis, and ask your vet if you are concerned about EMS or PPID.
You can learn more about laminitis, and many other conditions in our popular self study Horse First Aid Course. Full details are here.