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Getting the Low-Down on Equine Laminitis

Updated: Feb 25, 2022

Laminitis, Commonly know as Founder, is one of the most common ailments in modern-day horses, ponies, and donkeys. Despite the many cases diagnosed each year, the direct causes of laminitis are often tricky to pinpoint and treatment is rarely fully curative. There are however many ways to prevent laminitis from developing: Must-knows for every horse enthusiast!

What is Laminitis and what are some of the causes?

Laminitis is a painful condition where the lamellae of the hoof, which are supportive tissues between the hoof wall and interior dermal tissue, become inflamed. Although this may sound relatively easy to fix. this inflammation can lead to weakening of the lamellar attachments and if not stopped, can result in the final bone of the leg (which lies within the hoof) rotating and pointing downward. In sever cases this rotated bone can even pierce through the sole of the hoof!

There is no one single cause of laminitis. Any condition that results in inflammation within the hoof can lead to it. common examples include infections with certain bacteria that release systemic endotoxins, sepsis, corticosteroid use, and being meal fed with high-energy feeds or put on lush pasture. Horses who are overweight or have other metabolic abnormalities such as Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) are also more prone to the development of laminitis as are miniature horses, donkeys and most ponies. Laminitis can also become chronic after the first occurrence (if treated successfully) whereupon the horse will always be at a higher risk for recurrent flare-ups and bone rotation.

How do I recognize laminitis in my horses and can it be treated?

Luckily there are several signs of developing laminitis that you can learn to look for in your horse so that you can have a veterinarian out as quick as possible. The earlier the treatments for laminitis can be implemented, the less long-term damage your horse is likely to acquire! horses with laminitis will become progressively more tender on their feet which can be seen as increased shifting from foot to foot, reluctance to move and lying down. Later on they may exhibit the characteristic 'sawhorse stance' pictured below your horse may also be less willing to graze or eat from the ground to avoid putting it's weight on the forelimbs, which are often affected first. Your horses lower legs and hooves may also feel warmer than usual and 'bounding' arterial pulses are commonly felt around the fetlock (view hoof diagram). Other signs include those of generalize pain such as sweating, increased/puffy breathing and worried facial expression.

As was previously mentioned, there are a few treatments for laminitis. Proper foot care by a well educated farrier is one of the most crucial, within focus most often being placed on sole support and trimming back the toe to reduce the pressure placed on the front of the hoof wall. Pain medication and anti-inflammatories are also required to keep the horse comfortable and icing of the feet and the provision of soft bedding are highly recommended. In sever cases where the bone has already rotated significantly and pain can't be controlled, euthanasia may be the only humane option.

How do I prevent my horse from developing this condition?

Prevention is undoubtedly the most important treatment for laminitis. As mentioned earlier, Owners should be aware that ponies, miniatures and donkeys are by far the most susceptible groups based on their decreased ability to metabolize glucose. Care should also be taken to maintain a healthy body weight for your horse to further decrease their risk. Spring is an especially dangerous time for laminitis to occur as pastures are at their most lush so speaking with your veterinarian to develop a plan to slowly ease your horses onto grass after a winter of hay is advised. In general, early morning should be avoided as grass contains the most sucrose at that time of day. Time on pasture should also be limited to a couple of hours for the first few weeks. For horses who are at higher risk or with chronic laminitis, turnout on pasture should be avoided altogether, or if unavoidable, only turned out with a grazing muzzle. Finally, for most horses, unless they are in training for a competitive sport, grain is not required to maintain a healthy body weight and energy level, so very little if any should be given unless advised by your veterinarian as it also can predispose them to laminitis.

Take Home Message

Laminitis is a painful and debilitating condition for a horse. Although treatment can be implemented once diagnosed the best method is through specific prevention techniques. Don't hesitate to reach out and contact your veterinarian today to discuss which techniques might work for your horse!

Written by Dr. Emily Zakrajsek


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