Laminitis is a common condition, it has been affecting horses for many years but with a growing rise in equine obesity it is becoming even more of a problem. It is often a poorly understood condition, although thankfully we now know a lot more about the disease. With that in mind here are seven things every owner needs to know about laminitis.
Laminitis is more prevelant in overweight or obese horses and ponies, but it can affect equines of all shapes and sizes, and it isn’t a condition soley seen in ponies. Hunters, Thoroughbreds and competition horses can be affected, but often we simply think that this condition applies just to a fat ‘Thelwell’ type pony which isn’t the case. Donkeys are also at risk from the condition.
Laminitis is associated with lush Spring grass, and yes more cases are seen at this time, but laminitis can actually strike at any time of year. For example during the Autumn owners often make some management changes to their horse’s care, some of which can make an attack of laminitis more likely. The weather becomes a bit cooler, which can make owners reach for rugs and additional feed at a time, without realising that the grass is still growing, so your horse probably doesn’t need the extra calories. The days become darker, it’s not possible to hack out in the evening and many horses will be getting less exercise, and often reduced turnout as well.
Horses also experience some natural hormonal changes during the Autumn, with an increased concentration in the hormone ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) noted in healthy horses from August to October. Whilst this won’t cause the healthy horse any problems it is worth considering if your horse could be suffering from Equine Cushing’s Disease also known as PPID. Horses with this condition produce excess ACTH and are unable to regulate this, which in turn can make them more predisposed to suffering from laminitis.
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.
Horses may change their behaviour in the stable, banking up bedding under their hooves to take pressure off the front of the hoof. The appearance of hoof rings on the outside of the hoof, is likely to indicate changes in the lamellar cells, and this may allow a window of time for treatment before the condition develops and becomes increasingly more painful
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.
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.
Around 90% of laminitis cases actually have an underlying hormonal cause, and grazing is a trigger for laminitis to occur. Working with your vet to establish the cause, and then working out a sensible treatment plan will help keep laminitis at bay.
The two conditions linked to laminitis are Cushings Disease, correctly termed Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID), and Equine Metabolic Syndrome. PPID is a hormonal disease caused by changes in the pituitary gland in the brain, it is often a consequence of aging, although it can affect younger horses, and depending on your horse’s age it may be a sensible step to get your horse tested for this disease. It can often be well controlled with medication, and treating this condition will lessen the symptoms of the disease as well as reduce their risk of suffering with laminitis. EMS is likened to a ‘pre-diabetic condition’ in humans, and these animals are typically overweight, with abnormal fat distribution and often insulin resistance putting them at increased risk of laminitis. Working together with your vet to help your horse become a healthy weight will help you manage this condition.
Remove the horse from the pasture
Laminitis is inflammation within the lamellae, this causes damage, weakening the structure of these cells. In severe cases the weakened lamellae can break, meaning that the pedal bone is no longer supported within the hoof capsule. Therefore with any suspected case of laminitis it is essential to limit any further damage by reducing movement. The horse or pony should be removed from the field, and stabled immediately. Due to the painful nature of the condition the horse should be allowed to walk at their own pace, or it may be appropriate to travel the horse in a low trailer if the field is a longer distance from the stables. If no stabling is available a small pen will need to be created to reduce movement.
Create a comfortable environment
As well as restricting movement stabling the horse will allow it to be more comfortable, and a deep bed of shavings is ideal. The horse needs to be able to dig it’s hooves into the bedding material to provide pain relief, and the deep bed must be continued right up to the door of the stable. Some owners like to use sand but this must be dry and not too tightly compacted, and cardboard bedding could also be used, the bedding material just needs to be able to mould around the hoof and provide support to the frog.
It is sensible to ensure that the horse has a companion close by, it will help to keep it calm and as relaxed as possible. You can also use a frog support or role of cohesive bandage secured with duct tape.
The laminitic horse should not be starved, but does need to be fed an appropriate diet which is lower in non structural carbohydrates. Your vet will help you to devise a suitable diet to help manage laminitis, but soaking hay is an effective way to reduce the sugar content. Hay can be soaked in cold water for several hours, but for a more immediate option warm water can be used, soaking hay for 30 minutes to one hour to make it a safer forage choice for the laminitic horse or pony. It is essential that both hay and water are easy for the horse to get to, as limiting movement and reducing any further pain is the priority.
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.