Laminitis in horses | Symptoms, Causes & Treatments
What is Laminitis in horses?
Laminitis is known as an inflammatory condition of the sensitive layers (laminae) within a horse’s hoof. It is a condition found in horses all year round that can lead to extreme pain and have significant welfare implications to the horse.
In all cases diagnosis of laminitis is a medical emergency as severe cases can be fatal.
What does Laminitis in horses mean?
Laminitis is unlike many other diseases experienced by horses. The term means inflammation of the laminae which can lead to the soft tissues with the hoof wall to swell, weaken and even fail.
Despite being referred to as an inflammatory condition, only certain types of laminitis are truly ‘inflammatory’. The most common form of laminitis develops from a metabolic disease which is not actually inflammatory at all.
Once the process has begun it can be extremely complicated and costly to stop.
In severe or long term cases the condition can lead to founder, and external and visible deformity of the hoof, and if left alone can be fatal.
Horses with laminitis will often stand with an awkward gait, leaning their weight on both hind or rear legs at the same time and shifting the weight far more often than they normally would.
The condition is painful for many horses and requires immediate medical attention.
What is Founder in horses?
Founder in horses is in fact the same condition as laminitis but is a term widely used within the equine community to describe a more severe or chronic form of laminitis.
Some argue that ‘founder’ is when a chronic condition of laminitis is already present - where the coffin bone has already rotated or sunk to the ground as opposed to ‘laminitis’ which is the onset of inflammation within the laminae. When this rotation occurs people classically refer to this as “a foundered horse”. For the purpose of this article we will focus on the condition as laminitis.
Different types of Laminitis in horses
There are three general situations in which a horse can develop laminitis. In all cases the horse will show signs of lameness.
1) Nutrition Induced Laminitis (Or, ‘Inflammatory Laminitis')
Nutrition Induced laminitis is a commonly found form of laminitis created by the horse taking on excessive volumes of carbohydrates, normally from over grazing on grass or grain.
The natural way in which a horse digests carbohydrates, starches and sugars is in the small intestine. When excessive consumption occurs the small intestine cannot cope and overflows into the hindgut. This creates a toxic environment within the gut which can leak into the blood system.
2) Obesity Dependant Laminitis (Or ‘Overload Laminitis')
Obesity Dependant Laminitis is generally because of an overweight horse. When a horse over eats and becomes overweight this, as with humans, puts considerable stress on the horses heart, joints and breathing. Diagnosis of obesity dependant laminitis is greatly increased when a horse or pony is chronically over its recommended weight but this can happen in animals which are not excessively overweight to. Less common than other form of laminitis this form is sometimes referred to as ‘overload laminitis’ as the horse will bear more weight on one limb thereby ‘overloading’ it.
3) Insulin Resistance Laminitis (or, ‘Metabolic Laminitis’)
Another situation where laminitis can be caused is insulin resistance laminitis, or metabolic laminitis.
The hormone insulin is involved in the regulation of sugar levels in the blood and tissues of a horses body. When eating, insulin is secreted into the blood stream. Insulin resistance is found when the insulin stops supporting the tissues in the same way. Horses and ponies naturally compensate for insulin resistance by releasing more insulin into the bloodstream further, which can be used to test for horses with insulin resistance. Research has shown insulin resistance to be a factor when diagnosing the development of laminitis.
What causes Laminitis in horses?
The exact sequence of events which can lead to your horse being diagnosed with laminitis remains unclear.
The precise trigger is unknown but it is known that inflammation throughout the body can result in the inflammation or swelling of the laminae.
As well as the main causes listed above laminitis can also occur following other conditions such as equine metabolic syndrome, Cushing’s Disease, poor diet, cold weather, severe cases of colic or diarrhoea and infections.
Any injury to a specific leg which causes pain and discomfort can lead to the horse bearing more weight on the opposite leg; this too can lead to overload laminitis.
The condition can be extremely complicated to predict and once diagnosed is likely to be a reoccurring issue.
Symptoms of Laminitis in horses
There are several ways to establish whether your horse may have or be developing symptoms of laminitis. As laminitis is a medical emergency, if you do feel your horse is showing early signs of laminitis then prompt action is required including seeking professional medical advice.
The most common and easiest sign of your horse having laminitis is by establishing their digital pulse. Slide your hand down the side of your horses leg, between the fetlock joint and the hoof. Locate the digital artery which runs down the back of the fetlock and establish the horses pulse. Normally a healthy horse will have a feint pulse, in laminitis horses this pulse is much stronger and often referred to as ‘bounding’.
You can also feel the heat of your horses hoof and if the hoof feels excessively hot for a period of time this may indicate a high influx of blood into the hoof. Often easier to establish in colder climates and not to be mistaken for simply having heated up in the sun. Pay attention if the hoof temperature is more than 91.4ºf or 33ºc or hotter than the outside temperature for longer than a few hours.
You can sometimes detect early signs of laminitis by seeing distorted hoof growth. In healthy horses the rings of the hoof grow in rings mostly commonly evenly, with laminitis however the growth pattern no longer become uniform. This can create the hoof to curve upwards.
More obvious signs of laminitis can be found in the way the horse is standing and moving its feet. Commonly horses with laminitis will start to lift their feet more than often, or the opposite, not lift them as much. Their stride lengths will also change into much shorter strides often prior to showing signs of limping. These are more apparent and obvious on harder surfaces. In some cases the horse will lay down and not want to get up.
Another early indication of suspected laminitis is the horses weight. An obese or overweight horse is more likely to be insulin resistant and in many cases this is down to feed and/or pasture.
Finally, inflammatory responses (including digestive issues and inflammation caused by infections) can also lead to bouts of laminitis. A common method applied to support early signs of an inflammatory response is to reduce heat or prevent further increase in temperature. Avoid traditional magnetic boots which create heat.
Testing for Laminitis in horses
In recent years research has shown there are several methods in which can be applied to all horses ongoing care to help indicate the onset of laminitis and prevent the condition before it occurs. Spotting lameness early can really help the long term prognosis of the horse.
Two metabolic disorders associated with laminitis can be tested for:
Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS)
Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) is an endocrine disorder which is effected by abnormally high levels of insulin in the horses blood stream – this can be tested for by a vet.
It is widely reported that horses most affected are those who are overweight or obese so preventing this condition is based around strictly controlling the animals diet and exercise. Using this test can help show early signs of laminitis.
Cushings disease (or PPID)
Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) - or more simply put, Cushing’s Disease is a condition which can be tested for to indicate early signs of laminitis.
Cushings is caused when the pituitary glands malfunction and release high levels of hormones throughout the horses system. This often leads to a long and heavy coat which sheds very slowly, a significant loss in muscle mass, reduced energy levels, and more susceptible to infections.
PPID is more common in horses over fifteen years of age but can be seen in all horses of any age.
As hormones called ACTH are released into the blood system a simple blood test can show your vet whether the horse has PPID or no, which can then indicate early signs of laminitis. Upon diagnosis of Cushing’s a medication is available to horse owners with contains an active ingredient that controls the hormone release.
The only licensed product for treating Cushings is dopamine agonist pergolide mesylate - or Prascend, which are tablets prescribed by your vet and given orally.
Treatment for Laminitis in horses
It is suggested that up to 15% of all horses will develop laminitis at some stage in their lives, with as many as 3 out of 4 of these permanently effecting their wellbeing. Because of these statistics laminitis is one of those conditions that horse owners dread.
If left alone laminitis in horses can lead to permanent unsoundness, excruciating pain and in some cases euthanasia.
Options in treating laminitis are extremely limited so many owners look to prevent laminitis as part if their ongoing care and maintenance program.
In most cases, unfortunately, if your horse is showing symptoms of laminitis then it is often too late to prevent the condition and reversing laminitis in horses is almost impossible.
Treating Laminitis with prescription medication
If your horse is diagnosed with laminitis then you vet is likely to prescribe anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS) and painkillers.
Administering antibiotics to help fight an infection is also key. Anti-endotoxins are used to reduce the bacterial toxicity and anti-coagulants and vasodilators can be used to reduce the blood pressure with a view to helping to reduce blood flow to the feet and hooves.
New Treatments for Laminitis in horses
With laminitis so common within the equine community and little by way of cure, many therapies and new treatments are being researched.
Cryotherapy is a form of treatment which helps cool the horse feet and lower their distal limbs; aimed at helping to reduce inflammation within the laminae. As well as simply using ice in buckets there are a few products such as cooling boots which now have entered this space. These have mixed reputations within the veterinary world due to complications horses can develop using cooling products with skin conditions (such as cellulitis) and softening of the hoof wall.
One medication gathering momentum is an SGL2 inhibitor which helps lower blood sugar levels in humans. This has been found to help reduce insulin levels in horses but has some way to go before it can market itself as a medication for laminitis.
Further exciting research is being done using advanced magnetic technologies. These technologies aim to target the inflammation within the laminae helping owners to manage early signs of laminitis and provide a more long term approach to supporting inflammation in general.
Natural Treatments for Laminitis in horses
Using alternative therapies and natural approaches is common place within the equine community.
Providing your horse with nutritional herbs and homeopathic remedies is a commonly adopted form of treatment these days, often administered as a complementary approach.
Although not clinically supported owners are known to add high quality herbs (such as Fenugreek, Turmeric and Ginkgo Biloba) to their horses diet to help regulate blood sugar levels and increase blood circulation.
As with many health conditions found in horses having the right vitamins and nutrients can be key in supporting and treating a horse with laminitis. As horses need the same vitamins as humans, many owners look to carefully manage their horses vitamin and nutrient intake by adopting a well balanced and nutrient-rich diet, often using supplements containing essential fatty acids such as Omega-3 and Omega-6. As such there are a plethora of natural supplements available in the equine industry.
A new natural approach which is gathering pace is using CBD (Cannabinoids) to help reduce inflammation and help the recovery process. Studies will no doubt continue to grow in this field.
Managing your horse to prevent Laminitis
What is clear with laminitis is that as a medical emergency it is important horse owners understand the condition and are fully aware of just how common it is. By applying a few steps to their ongoing management we can look to reduce or even prevent laminitis.
Manage the horses intake of grass
Carefully and consistently manage your horses pasture access. Lush green grass looks lovely, but the saying “the grass is green on the other side” also has significant impact on whether your horse develops laminitis or not. Sugar and starch levels in grass fluctuate throughout the seasons with new shoots representing the highest levels of starch and sugars, carefully managing of the pasture around spring time is there for required.
Carefully and consistently manage your horses pasture access. Lush green grass looks lovely, but the saying “the grass is green on the other side” also has significant impact on whether your horse develops laminitis or not. Sugar and starch levels in grass fluctuate throughout the seasons with new shoots representing the highest levels of starch and sugars, carefully managing of the pasture around spring time is therefor required.
In some cases horses will require a muzzle to prevent them from continuously eating.
Manage the horses diet
It is of vital importance that owners manage their horses diet, particularly if your horse has a metabolic disorder. Even small or standard portions of sugar or starch in grains and green grass can trigger a laminitis episode. Most horses will do fine on grass hay without added concentrates but in some cases supplements which carefully control the sugar and starch levels would be advised.
Some owners like to soak their hay before feeding the horse. Even grass contains simple starch and sugars called nonstructural carbohydrates (NCSs) which are water soluble and thus can be soaked in water prior to feeding to reduce the concentrates of the nutrients. (make sure you feed the horse immediately after soaking to avoid contamination with moulds, etc and that you have not limited their vitamin intake too much by doing this)
Another form of laminitis, systematic inflammation, is caused when toxins or bacteria gets into the bloodstream. The best known triggers for this type of laminitis is once again by carefully managing the horses diet, avoid starch overload and make any dietary changes gradually and not all at once.
Managing your horses hooves and joints
Finally, the final way to help prevent laminitis is to pay careful attention to your horses hoofs and joints and take good care of them. There are many forms of hoof problems which can lead to further issues.
Unusual physical stress on your horses hoofs or joints can put significant impact on the laminae and lead to laminitis.
Just with humans, if one leg is painful we will put weight on the other leg - horses do the same. The additional stress put on joints and hoofs can lead to further health complications such as ringbone, tendonitis, equine arthritis, navicular and other joint conditions.
As long as your horse is cared for appropriately then this type of laminitis is rare. Make sure you keep up with regular hoof trimming by your farrier and that you choose the appropriate footing for that horse. Invest in tack which is developed to support the horse joints and use the approach that many professional sports horses do which is ‘prevention is more important than cure’.
Frequently asked questions regarding laminitis
What is laminitis in horses?
Laminitis in horses is inflammation of the laminae which can lead to significant medical intervention.
What are the most common signs of laminitis in horses?
Your horses hoofs will feel hot to touch and the horse is likely to shift their weight from one leg to another more than usual. In most cases the horse will show signs of being lame.
Can laminitis in horses be cured?
Laminitis can be managed but no cure has been clinically proven. Prevention is as important as cure.
What is founder versus laminitis?
The term ‘founder’ is an alternative name for laminitis often used in the United States and North America or for more chronic forms of laminitis.
Can I use traditional magnets on my laminitis horse?
To support your horse with laminitis you need to reduce heat to the local area, not increase it, like traditional magnets do. StreamZ unique magnetic approach creates no thermal reaction (heat) when placed on the horse and thus can be used alongside a horse diagnosed with laminitis.
What leg on my horse should I attach the Streamz bands to in the hope it helps my horse with laminitis symptoms?
StreamZ technology can be worn on any leg; which ever suits your horse. Our team would advise placing the bands on the legs which the horse is applying more weight on.
Do you have reviews showing how EQU StreamZ bands can support my horse with laminitis?
"Thank you so much for donating a pair of your StreamZ bands to Breeze. She is a 4 year old therapy pony who was rescued as a foal, her and her mum were starved and unfortunately this left Breeze with a series of health issues including bad feet due to lack of nutrients as a foal. She recently diagnosed with mechanical laminitis and was very lame, but with the help of her EQU StreamZ bands and some new shoes she is making a great recovery! Everyone at TEAL (and Breeze of course!) are very thankful to StreamZ and so are all our clients as she can now continue her therapeutic work with them! Many thanks to you all!" - Teal Equine Charity
"My 10 year old mare developed laminitis in her hind feet last year. She spent 8 months on box rest and the bands have been invaluable over this time. Getting good blood circulation while confined to her stable was a difficulty but the Streamz bands have really helped. Previously any overnight stabling has resulted in filled legs but she had no problems at all with that throughout her long recovery. I can highly recommend them!" - Jo Simpson
"My 17.3 hand 8 year old Gedling was diagnosed with laminitis, rotation of the pedal bone and was given 6-12 months to come back into work. (if he was lucky!) He also has joint problems in both his hocks, one stifle and an old back problem where he fractured his vertebrae and detached his ligaments. He has been wearing his EQU StreamZ magnetic bands for a few weeks now and I have my horse back! He is sound, acting his age again and is back to flatwork! I highly recommend this product!!" - Jemma Greatbanks
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