The Facts about Laminitis

What is Laminitis?

Laminitis is recognised as one of the most common and crippling diseases affecting horses, ponies and donkeys. Laminitis occurs as a result of inflammation of the sensitive layers (laminae) in the hoof. The laminae attach the pedal bone to the hoof wall and any inflammation causes pain and lameness. In severe cases the laminae can fail completely, leaving the pedal bone detached from the hoof wall and able to rotate within the hoof capsule or sink downwards and protrude through the sole.

Cases of laminitis can vary greatly in their severity and prognosis and whilst every horse or pony has the potential to develop the disease, some are more at risk than others and once an individual has had laminitis they are more at risk of suffering recurrent episodes, regardless of the initial cause.

What causes Laminitis?

What causes laminitis continues to be an area of huge research. It has become evident in recent years that although the over consumption of grass or feed high in starch or sugar is still commonly associated with horses developing laminitis, up to 90% of cases have an underlying hormonal cause. Animals that suffer from problems such as: Cushing’s disease (also known as PPID), Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and Insulin Resistance (IR) will have an increased risk of developing laminitis.

Fibre should form the basis of every horse’s diet to keep the digestive system healthy and functioning efficiently. A horse’s hind gut is populated with millions of bacteria which break down fibre by fermentation. Starch and sugar are normally digested in the small intestine, but when too much is fed some passes into the hind gut where rapid fermentation by the bacteria causes lactic acid to be produced. This acid production alters the pH of the hind gut and disruptsthe careful balance of gut bacteria. The acidic environment can also damage the gut wall and allow dead bacteria and other endotoxins to enter the blood stream; this causes an inflammatory response in the body resulting in laminitis. Feeding a high fibre diet, particularly one which utilises ingredients such as beet pulp, oat fibre and alfalfa will not only supply the horse with essential nutrients but will also help to maintain a healthy hind gut microflora as well as providing anti-inflammatory properties.

What is known for certain is that laminitis is a complex, multi-factorial disease that can range in severity from very mild to fatal. In susceptible horses and ponies, a laminitis attack can be triggered by a variety of metabolic and physical causes including:

• Hormonal (PPID, EMS, IR)
• Excessive intakes of lush or frosted grass, molassed feed and cereal grains that leads to an overload of soluble carbohydrate in the hindgut
• Obesity
• Laminitis
• Stress
• Trauma
• Lameness in one limb leading to excessive weight baring on the other limbs
• Toxins – e.g. as a result of bacteria released during illness such as retained placenta, colic, or an infection in the body

What to look for:

• Laminitis can affect all four feet but the clinical signs are often more noticeable in the front feet.
• Your horse appears lame and may be reluctant to move, making only small, careful, ‘pottery’ strides. This may be more apparent on a turn or on hard surfaces.
• Your horse may look as if he is putting his heel to the ground before his toe when he is walking.
• Your horse appears uncomfortable and may shift his weight from one foot to another. The characteristic ‘laminitic stance’ with forelegs stretched forwards and weight shifted onto the heels to relieve pressure from the toes is commonly seen.
• In severe cases, your horse may lie down for extended periods.
• The hooves may feel abnormally warm, but this is not a reliable sign.
• A pounding digital pulse can be felt in the pastern.
• The sole of the hoof may be abnormally sensitive to pressure.
• Laminitis should be treated as a medical emergency and veterinary attention sought immediately.
• Whilst waiting for the vet you can make your horse more comfortable by:
• Stabling him on a deep bed of shavings to provide support for the hooves. Do not use straw as your horse may eat it.
• Providing clean fresh water, but remove all bucket feed and only feed hay that has been soaked for 12 hours to reduce its sugar content.
• Allowing him to lay down if he chooses.

How to avoid Laminitis

Keep horses at ideal bodyweights

It is well recognised that overweight and obese horses and ponies are more at risk of developing laminitis. By maintaining your horse at a healthy weight and body condition score, the risk of laminitis developing or recurring in the future can be lessened. You should be able to feel your horse’s ribs easily when you run your hand lightly across the ribcage and there should be no fat deposits or signs of a crest developing on the neck.

Limit sugars in the diet

If your horse requires a supplementary bucket feed ensure it is one which is high in fibre, with a low starch and sugar level of under 10%. Avoid feeds which contain cereals and added sugars such as molasses. A high fibre, low starch and sugar feed like Fast Fibre, Veteran Light or L Mix is often ideal for laminitis sufferers.

Choose additional calorie sources carefully

Bear in mind that not all laminitics are the typical overweight ponies we usually associate with the condition; some are poor doers or hard working horses that require higher calorie/energy diets. Ingredients like beet pulp and alfalfa are not only high in fibre but they are also an excellent calorie source, containing as much energy as many cereal grains but without the high starch content. Oil is also an excellent source of extra calories that is safe for laminitics; in particular, a linseed meal or oil would be a useful addition to the diet for any horse requiring an energy boost. Linseed is high in omega 3 oils and well known for its excellent anti-inflammatory properties within the body.

Avoid frosted grass

Laminitis isn’t just a spring and summer problem it can occur in the winter too, particularly when horses eat frosted grass. Avoid turnout on days when it is very cold but bright and sunny as the fructan (sugar) content of the grass will be at its highest. Wait until the temperature has risen and the frost has melted before turning out.

Restrict grazing

Unproductive, poor quality grazing is best for laminitis prone horses and ponies but as this isn’t often available, avoiding lush pasture and restricting grass intakes is very important. Strip grazing, implementing a tracked grazing system and the use of a grazing muzzle can all significantly reduce a horse’s grass intake whilst helping to maintain natural grazing behaviour.

Feed a low energy forage

Hay is more suitable for horses and ponies at risk of laminitis than haylage. For those prone to the disease and/or overweight, feed hay that has been soaked for 12-16 hours. Soaking hay leaches out the water-soluble carbohydrates making it much lower in sugar and calories than unsoaked hay. Being lower in sugar means more can be fed to satisfy the horse’s need for a near constant supply of fibre, particularly when grazing is restricted.

Increase exercise

If your horse is prone to weight gain, increasing the calories he uses through exercise will help to keep his weight in check. Whilst regular exercise is important for all-round health, it is important to ensure your horse is fit enough for the work you are asking him to do. Avoid fast work on hard or stony ground to help prevent concussion to the hooves that can lead to laminitis.