Look Out for Laminitis

While laminitis can strike in any season, a ‘flush’ of rapid grass growth makes spring a high-risk time. Being able to spot the signs of an attack early maximizes your horse’s chance of recovery so it pays to be vigilant, especially as subtle signs such as slight reluctance to turn or shortening of stride can be easily missed.

Can you spot the signs?

Signs of laminitis include:

  • Weight shifting
  • Changes in gait including a shorter stride or ‘pottery’ movement
  • Reluctance to turn or cross the hindlimbs
  • Reluctance to walk on hard, stoney or uneven ground
  • Lameness
  • Abnormal stance
  • A strong/ pounding digital pulse
  • Hot feet
  • Signs of pain such as sweating and increased pulse, temperature and respiration rates (which may be mistaken for signs of colic)
  • Refusal to move or stand in severe cases

Abnormal stance

We’ve all seen pictures of the classic laminitic stance but it’s important to remember that how the horse or pony stands will depend on the severity of laminitis and which feet are affected.

In fact, if all 4 feet are affected the horse or pony may stand normally.

Keeping your finger on the pulse

In a healthy horse/ foot the digital pulse may be faint or impossible to feel but it still pays to practice while your horse is sound and healthy. The digital arteries that run down the side of the leg and into the hoof ‘pulse’ with every heartbeat; the expression ‘pounding’ describes the strength of the pulse as opposed to the speed - it will feel like it’s ‘throbbing’. The digital pulse can be on the inside and outside of the leg from just above the fetlock (towards the back of the leg), over the fetlock and in the mid-upper pastern area. Remember to use your index and middle fingers and not your thumb, otherwise you may feel your own pulse. Apply gentle pressure – press too firmly and you may block the pulse.

Hot feet caution

Hot feet are not always the most reliable indicator of laminitis. Hoof temperature fluctuates and if your horse has been outside in the height of summer, hot feet are not necessarily cause for concern.  However hot feet for prolonged periods or on a cold day and/ or heat in one or two feet only should raise suspicion.

Chronic laminitis

The term chronic laminitis is used to describe laminitis that results in long term changes in the hoof. Signs of chronic laminitis include:

  • Abnormal hoof growth, in particular faster growth at the heel than the toe
  • Laminitic hoof rings which are often wider at the heel than the toe
  • Thin and/ or bruised soles
  • Convex or dropped soles
  • Bruising or blood in the white line
  • Stretched white line
  • Cracked and/or ‘flared’ hoof walls
  • Change in the hoof wall angle
  • Rotation of the pedal bone (shown by x-ray)

Which horses and ponies are at highest risk?

Laminitis is thought to affect approximately 3-5% of the equine population. Although any horse or pony can develop laminitis, a number of risk factors have been identified including:

  • Genetics e.g., native breeds or being a pony
  • Recent weight gain & obesity, particularly in horses and ponies with a body condition score (BCS) of 7 or above on the 1-9 scale
  • Regional fat deposits including a cresty neck
  • Insulin dysregulation (ID)
  • Equine metabolic syndrome (EMS)
  • PPID (Cushing’s syndrome), especially in the presence of ID
  • A history of laminitis
  • High intakes of non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) or ‘starch and sugar’
  • Low adiponectin (measured via blood test). Adiponectin is a hormone secreted by fat cells that helps to regulate glucose and fat metabolism

The reason some horses and ponies develop laminitis and others do not is still not fully understood. Individual risk is likely to depend on a complex interaction between genetics and environment e.g., diet and management.

Is obesity really a problem?

While obesity rates far exceed the incidence of laminitis, excess weight gain is a risk that shouldn’t be taken lightly. For one thing, overweight horses and ponies that develop laminitis may be slower to recover and have a poorer prognosis. Although obesity is not the only risk factor for laminitis, it’s one you can influence, unlike genetics. Excess body fat can contribute to the development of insulin dysregulation, a known risk factor for laminitis. On the other hand, regular exercise and maintaining a healthy bodyweight help to reduce the risk of insulin dysregulation. Excess weight gain is also associated with a number other health and welfare implications including increased joint strain, respiratory stress, heat intolerance and an increased risk of certain types of colic.

When laminitis strikes

If you suspect your horse or pony has laminitis, stable them on a deep bed that goes all the way to the door and call the vet immediately. Stall rest is essential for preventing further damage to the laminae and the vet will often prescribe pain relief. Initial diagnosis is often made based on clinical signs but in some cases X-rays, blood tests or other clinical tests may be needed to provide more information about the severity or potential cause of laminitis.

Feed & management tips for those prone to laminitis

  • Ideally monitor weight weekly and body condition every other week. A BCS of 5/9 is generally considered ideal but allowing good doers to enter the spring at a leaner score of 4.5 can help to prevent excess weight gain.
  • Restrict or remove grazing. In horses and ponies at very high risk, complete removal of grazing may be necessary.
  • Avoid turning out on sunny frosty mornings – grass exposed to cold temperatures in conjunction with bright sunlight may contain high levels of water-soluble carbohydrate (WSC) or ‘sugar’.
  • Ideally feed a low NSC hay (<10-12% on a dry matter basis). Alternatively consider feeding a hay replacer low in starch and sugar.
  • Soaking hay helps to reduce the WSC content but results are highly variable which means soaking alone doesn’t guarantee suitability.
  • Total forage intake should not be restricted to less than 1.5% of current bodyweight on a dry matter basis. In practice, this equates to approximately 20 lbs. of hay - or 24 lbs. if you intend to soak it before feeding - on as fed basis (the amount you weigh out) for an 1100 lb. horse without access to grazing.
  • Balancers, like GRO ‘N WIN or Senior Balancer, are the ideal way to provide vitamins, minerals and quality protein without excess calories, starch and sugar.
  • Not all laminitics are overweight. If additional calories are required, look high fat, low carbohydrate feeds such as SAFE N EASY Senior or SAFE N EASY Performance; or fat supplements like Ultimate Finish 100 which provides no starch or sugar
  • Divide feeds into as many small meals as possible to help reduce the amount of starch and sugar consumed in any one meal.
  • If possible, maintain a regular exercise program. Research has shown that even small amounts of exercise may help to improve insulin sensitivity.
  • Speak to a nutritionist for specific advice, especially if your horse/ pony is severely insulin dysregulated.
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