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Laminitis Awareness

Author: Tess Horton-Fawkes MRCVS

What is laminitis?

Laminitis is a painful clinical syndrome that can affect horses, ponies and donkeys. It may occur as a single episode but more frequently occurs in repeated bouts, known as ‘recurrent laminitis’. The condition affects the tissues (laminae) that suspend the pedal bone within the hoof. Inflammation of the laminae can result in sinking or rotation of the pedal bone, and in extreme cases, penetration through the sole of the foot.

What are the possible causes?

Laminitis can be divided into three main forms, depending on the underlying cause. The most common form is endocrinopathic laminitis, which occurs as a result of insulin dysregulation, and is seen in conditions such as equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) and Cushings (PPID). Other possible forms of laminitis are: sepsis-associated and contralateral limb lameness (where injury to one limb results in excessive weight, and laminitis, in the other).

What symptoms are seen with laminitis?

  • Lameness, or a reluctance to move

  • Weight shifting or characteristic rocking back stance

  • Heat in the hooves and increased digital pulses: please speak to your vet if you are unsure where to feel for these

  • Reluctance to pick up feet, for example, when picking out hooves or for the farrier

How can we diagnose laminitis?

The initial diagnosis of laminitis is usually based on clinical signs. These signs might include: lameness, increased digital pulses and hoof wall temperature, or clinical signs suggestive of endocrine disease. If an underlying endocrine disease is suspected, blood samples may be taken to confirm this. During a laminitic episode, foot radiographs can help to confirm if movement of the pedal bone has occurred.

The first X-ray shows rotation of the pedal bone and slippering of the toe. The second is of a normal foot with no rotation.

What treatment can be given?

Laminitis is an extremely painful condition so our first priority is always to improve the horse’s comfort through pain relief. We can also improve the horse’s comfort by providing foot support; this might include increasing the depth of the bedding (ideally with a material, like shavings or sand), applying supports directly to the foot or using gel orthotic hoof boots. Horses in an acute laminitis episode must not have access to pasture and should be fed a low sugar forage. A low-calorie balancer can be incorporated into the diet to ensure the horse receives sufficient protein, vitamins and minerals.

How can we prevent laminitis?

Laminitis can be prevented through diet and weight management. The most important aspect of dietary management is to reduce the amount of access the horse has to grass. There are several ways of doing this: for example, limiting time at pasture, strip grazing or using a grazing muzzle. During at risk periods, such as spring, avoiding grazing altogether may be necessary. If the horse is fed hay, this can be soaked to reduce the sugar available, and hard feeds with a low sugar content should be chosen.

In addition to diet, weight management can be supported by maximising exercise, providing the horse is comfortable and not showing any signs of lameness. Taking regular weight tape or weigh bridge measurements can be helpful in monitoring progress. If this is something you are interested in, we are able to come and take weigh bridge measurements at your yard.

Working with the farrier to have the horse’s hooves regularly trimmed and appropriately shod ensures the feet have good support. X-rays can be taken by your vet to guide the farrier in making any necessary changes.

Specific medical treatment for an underlying endocrine condition can be implemented based on your horse’s blood results. Your vet will be able to advise on the most appropriate drug and starting dose.

As always, if you have any concerns about your horses, ponies and donkeys, give us a call!


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