Laminitis in Horses

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What Causes Laminitis?

Laminitis is a disorder that is associated with overfeeding sugar and starch or water-soluble carbohydrates, which causes inflammation of the laminae.

It targets the lamellar (soft, connective tissue) that holds the hoof to the pedal bone, and the inflammation resulting in pain and lameness in horses and ponies.

Although laminitis is a disorder that is expressed in the feet, the actual physiology of laminitis involves poor circulation, vasoconstriction and pooling of toxins, pro-inflammatory factors, oxygen starvation and the inability of glucose to energise normal hoof metabolism.

The major instigators of these factors are endocrinological – obesity, insulin resistance PPID, dietary (too much fructans, sugars, overeating), or mechanical (bruising, wounds).

Laminitis is most commonly seen in the pony breeds, particularly the natives being more susceptible.

With these type of breeds, laminitis would normally only show up with mild symptoms. However with a combination of different aspects can increase the risk and severity. For example an obese horse on a high starch diet will be more liable to laminitis than a lean animal on a high forage diet. And mechanically, a heavily obese horse with hoof damage can exhibit laminitis where a lighter horse would not.

What are the signs of laminitis?

More often the clinical signs are seen in the front two feet, but it does normally affect all four and cause lameness.

Reluctance to move, taking small steps, putting the heel down first when walking on hard surfaces are all tell-tale signs.

Your horse/pony may appear to look uncomfortable and shift their weight from one foot to another and look like the classic ‘laminitic stance.’ The forelegs are stretched forward and the weight is shifted on to the heels. Horses and ponies do this to alleviate the pain and pressure. If the pain is too much and in more severe cases, they will spend a good amount of time laid down.

Over the years, checking if the hooves are abnormally warm has been classed as a good sign, but this isn’t fully reliable.

Checking the horses pulse and feeling a throbbing pulse in the legs, over the sesamoid bone (one of the closest pulse point to the hoof), can be another sign of laminitis.

If you are concerned or unsure if you are seeing the signs, don’t hesitate to call your vet immediately.

Until your vet comes, try to keep your horse and pony as comfortable as possible by keeping them stabled on a thick bed of shavings as support for the hooves. Remove any hard feed and supply fresh water and hay that has been soaked for 12 hours – this reduces the sugar content.

How to prevent a horse getting laminitis

There are two main routes; physical and nutritional. Physically, checking hooves for punctures or bruising.

Regular and continuous exercise helps circulation and keeps the lamellar oxygenated and flushes away pro-inflammatory factors and toxins.

Equally important is weight control; an overweight horse puts extra stress on the hoof. Checking your horses or ponies condition score is key and maintaining a healthy, high fibre, balanced diet.

Also consider paddock management. Grass grows all year round, but spring and autumn time are the periods where it grows the fastest. These periods are when the grass has higher levels of sugars. Even the time of day, mid-morning is the optimum time for grass to grow.

What can I feed a horse with Laminitis?

Because horse and ponies are hind-gut fermenters, fibre should form the base of their feed. Fibre keeps the digestion system healthy and functioning properly.

Starch and sugar are normally digested in the small intestine however; if too much is ingested, any excess passes through to the hind gut affecting the microbial profile and causing rapid fermentation and lactic acid to be produced.

This lactic acid alters the pH in the hind gut and becomes an acidic environment which can alter the permeability of the gut wall, which then allows dead bacteria and endotoxins to enter the blood stream and causes the inflammation response with laminitis.

High fibre feeds that utilise ingredients like beet pulp, oat fibre and alfalfa will help the microflora to be maintained in the hind gut and provide a functioning barrier to these toxins.

Speedi-Beet and Fibre-Beet are super fibre beet pulp feeds that are high in fibre and low in sugar and starch. Ideal fibre based feeds for horses and ponies prone to laminitics as part of a balanced diet.

Avoid high starch diets such as cereals and mixes that are most likely to cause weight gain. If weight gain is needed speak to the British Horse Feeds team about adding Cooked Linseed or other high oil feeds.

Small feeds, little and often is good practice alongside forage. Again speak to a nutritionist on how much you should feed. It is important to keep the hindgut moving so we don’t want to limit the forage to little.

Remember when making any changes to the horses or ponies diet, do them slowly allowing the digestive system to get used to the change – too quick of a change could result in colic.

Consult your vet for veterinary advice & contact the British Horse Feeds team for feed advice.

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