Sophie Woolford BVetMed MRCVS explains more about why horses get laminitis, how to prevent it and what to do if you suspect laminitis.
With spring now upon us the days are getting warmer and the grass is getting longer, but unfortunately this is not always good for our pony friends. In the spring we often see a sudden increase in the number of cases of laminitis.
What is Laminitis?
Laminitis is a condition most commonly seen in our native ponies, especially those carrying a few extra kilos. It is an extremely painful condition affecting horses hooves. Within the horses hoof capsule sits a bone called the pedal bone. This is attached to the hoof wall by a series of laminae. When a horse gets laminitis this laminae becomes inflamed. This causes a great deal of pain in the horses foot both when standing and whilst trying to walk around.
Why Do Horses Get Laminitis?
Commonly horses are susceptible to laminitis in the spring as the lush grass begins to come through. An overload in carbohydrates is often the trigger for laminitis, especially in ponies. Recently there has been a great deal of research into why some ponies get laminitis and others don’t when under similar management. Underlying hormonal conditions namely EMS (equine metabolic syndrome) and PPID (equine cushings disease) are thought to be significant contributing causes of laminitis. Laminitis can also be caused by systemic infections such as a retained placenta or severe pneumonia. Non-weight bearing lameness from broken bones can also cause laminitis in the opposite leg that is holding all of the horses weight.
What Are The Clinical Signs of Laminitis?
- Pottery walk/short striding walk
- Weight shifting from one foot to another repeatedly
- Unwillingness to pick up feet
- Very warm hooves
- Increased digital pulses
- Lying down excessively
- Reluctance to walk
- Increased heart and respiratory rate
- Abnormal changes to the hoof
What To Do If You Suspect Laminitis
Laminitis is a serious and painful condition that can lead to euthanasia in severe cases. A full clinical examination by a veterinarian is always recommended as soon as possible. Treatment is primarily aimed at relieving the pain associated with the condition but also to reduce the likelihood of long-term damage. Your horse will need a deep bedded stable to maximise comfort and minimise movement. This helps to reduce the likelihood of downward rotation of the pedal bone.
Horses are commonly on box rest for a minimum 2-4 weeks after a diagnosis of laminitis has been made. You should eliminate access to pasture throughout a laminitic episode. Fresh water should always be available, along with small nets of soaked hay.
How Do I Prevent My Horse Getting Laminitis?
Further investigations for concurrent hormonal diseases such as EMS (equine metabolic syndrome) and PPID (equine cushings disease) are strongly encouraged once the horse becomes more comfortable.
Diagnosing equine cushings is made from a combination of clinical signs and a blood sample to test for high levels of a hormone called ACTH.
Medication can be prescribed to horses with equine cushings to keep hormone levels under control. This can significantly reduce the likelihood of laminitis reoccurring.
A large proportion of horses diagnosed with laminitis are overweight or obese. Regularly monitoring your horse’s weight with a weigh tape can help you keep on top of their weight management. Body condition scoring is another useful tool to monitor weight. Horses that have previously had laminitic episodes should be kept at a body condition score 2.5 – 3 out of 5. Ponies often carry excessive body weight in the crest of their neck, this has been shown to greatly increase the risk of laminitis.
Restricting calorie intake is key to weight loss. This can be done by minimising hard feed, soaking hay and reducing access to pasture. A correctly fitted grazing muzzle is a useful aid to limit the intake of grass whilst out on pasture.
Turning your horse out at night when the grass has a lowered sugar content is another way to reduce their calorie intake. Eliminating treats such as carrots and apples is a simple way to reduce the sugar content of your horses diet.
When laminitis has resolved regular exercise is a great way to keep weight down and reduce the likelihood of it reoccurring. Always ensure your horse has been fully assessed by a vet before resuming ridden work after your horse has been diagnosed with laminitis.
The key to managing laminitis is early detection and strict management. Spring is a critical time of year for our ponies when it comes to laminitis. We encourage owners to be extra vigilant at this time of year and to always seek veterinary advice if you are at all unsure about your horses wellbeing.