Laminitics and Losing Weight

While equine obesity is a growing problem that comes with a host of health and welfare implications, let’s not forget that not every horse is a good doer, and this includes some laminitics.  Feeding a laminitic for weight gain may feel terrifying but rest assured, it can be done safely - the key lies in choosing the source of energy (calories) in the diet carefully.

Why has your horse lost weight?

Weight loss may simply be the result of a shortfall in calories but it’s important to rule out the possibility of a dental issue or an underlying medical condition, especially if there have been no obvious changes in diet. If you have any concerns, speak to your vet and/ or an equine dental technician.

Where do calories come from?

The main sources of energy or ‘calories’ in the horses’ diet are fiber, oil (fat), starch and sugar. Many owners are now aware that laminitics need to be managed carefully on a diet that is high in fiber and low starch and sugar, but the different terminology used to describe ‘starch and sugar’ can be confusing. Here’s a quick guide to busting the jargon: 

  • Non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) = starch + water soluble carbohydrate
  • Water soluble carbohydrate (WSC) is largely made up of simple sugars such a sucrose (the sugar you put in your tea or coffee) and fructan
  • Fructan is the ‘storage form’ of sugar in the majority of grasses

Cereal grains are high in starch but low in sugar. While grass, and consequently hay, contains very little starch, even mature meadow hay and winter grazing may be deceptively high in WSC or ‘sugar’.

Forage first

Forage should be the foundation of every horse’s diet and while laminitics are no exception, it’s important to remember that forage is the largest source of ‘sugar’ in the diet. Ideally feed a low NSC (<10-12%) hay ad lib – although soaking hay helps to reduce the WSC content, ‘sugar’ losses are highly variable which means soaking alone can’t guarantee suitability. Alternatively, consider feeding a hay replacer that is low in starch and sugar, particularly for those at very high risk.

If your horse is fussy or has a poor appetite, you may need to monitor how much hay/ forage replacer they are eating – ideally weigh the amount you provide and what is left for around 3-5 days to get a better idea of what your horse actually consumes.

Winter watch-out

Winter grazing can present hidden dangers for those prone to laminitis. When the temperature drops below 40°F the grass stops growing but will continue to produce sugar whenever the sun is shining (as result of photosynthesis). When sugar is not used for growth, it’s stored as fructan, causing potentially high levels of WSC to accumulate - this is why turnout on pasture exposed to bright sunlight in conjunction with cold temperatures should be avoided.

Bucket feed

In addition to providing suitable forage, look for feeds that high in fat and low in starch and sugar, such as the SAFE ‘N EASY line of BUCKEYE™ Nutrition concentrates. Fat/Oil packs a real punch when it comes to calories – gram for gram, oil is approximately 2.5 times higher in calories compared to cereal grains but is also starch (and sugar) free. Feeding small meals will also help to reduce the amount of starch and sugar consumed in any one meal which may be particularly important for those with insulin dysregulation.

Think outside (or rather inside) the bag

First impressions can be deceptive and when it comes to choosing a high calorie feed for laminitics, the most suitable option may not be the most obvious one. A great example of this is SAFE ‘N EASY Performance. You could be forgiven for thinking that SAFE ‘N EASY Performance is just for horses in heavy training or frequent competition, ulcers but in fact, being high in calories and fat but low in starch (8%) and sugar (5.5%) makes it an ideal choice for poor doers prone to laminitis, including those at rest or in light work.

For specific advice on feeding your laminitic, contact us.

Previous Article: Look Out for Laminitis