The sun is shining and in the space of just a few short weeks the fields are greening up. Many horse owners welcome the arrival of those long summer days when their horses can graze 24/7; feed bills come down, the horses’ coats bloom and those who suffer from breathing ailments benefit from the fresh air and shorter time spent stabled. Unfortunately, this time of plenty can be a real problem for those whose horses suffer from laminitis.
What is laminitis?
Laminitis can affect both horses and ponies and can affect all four feet, although it more commonly manifests itself in the forefeet.
Laminitis is a chronic and painful condition which compromises blood flow to the sensitive laminae which lie beneath the hoof wall. The tissues within the hoof wall become swollen and inflamed thus depriving the laminae of the nutrients and oxygen carried in the blood. Unless the condition is recognised and treated urgently, cell damage will occur and the laminae will die.
The laminae support the pedal bone which in turn takes the weight of the horse. In severe cases of laminitis, the pedal bone sinks and rotates and may even protrude from the sole of the foot. Such cases are usually untreatable and the affected animal must be euthanized on humane grounds.
Causes of laminitis
Overweight animals and those on a diet rich in soluble carbohydrates are particularly susceptible to laminitis. Undigested sugars and starch are broken down in the hindgut by bacteria. The resulting acidity kills fibre-digesting bacteria which break down and release toxins into the horse’s gut. The toxins move into the bloodstream causing a physiological response which disrupts the flow of blood. This disruption, if it affects the horse’s feet, causes laminitis.
Other causes include stress brought on by travelling, environmental changes and foaling; bacterial infection, colic, toxaemia and Cushing’s disease. Concussion in horses undertaking fast or prolonged periods of work on hard surfaces can also cause laminitis especially if the horse has poor hooves.
Signs and symptoms
The onset of laminitis is usually rapid and symptoms are severe. The affected animal will be very lame and reluctant to move. A strong digital pulse will be present in the affected feet. In order to relieve the painful pressure in its feet the horse will try to transfer the weight backwards onto its heels. If the horse can be persuaded to walk, it will place its heels down first to try to avoid the extreme pain at the point of the frog. There may also be mild colic symptoms present.
In an animal that suffers from chronic laminitis, ongoing symptoms are seen caused by previous relapses. There may be growth rings around the hoof wall; the heel will usually grow faster than the toe, the horse may have a large crest and the white line in the hoof wall will usually appear widened.
As soon as you suspect laminitis, call your vet. Put the horse in a small stable or pen with a deep bed of something that will mould into the hoof and around the frog to provide support. Remove any feed until the vet has attended and advised you of a suitable diet. Resist the temptation to hose the feet with cold water as this can make things worse.
Your vet will often advise x-rays in order to establish whether the pedal bone has rotated and remedial farriery will usually be required to try to control the condition and promote a degree of recovery.
Never overfeed your horse and always adjust his ration according to his work rate, access to grass and the quality of your forage. You don’t need to starve your horse just stick to high fibre/low sugar products and avoid cereals and anything containing molasses.
The safest time to graze your horse is at night when there are less soluble carbohydrates present and remember that grasses like rye and clover have a higher sugar content than more traditional varieties, so try to manage your grazing accordingly.
If laminitis is detected early, it can often be managed successfully but if left too long or not spotted at all, the condition can cause irreparable damage and euthanasia is sometimes the only humane option.
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