Laminitis In Horses: What You Need To Know

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Learning about the causes, signs, and treatments of laminitis in horses can give you a better understanding of the disease and allow you to minimize your horse’s risk and manage any long-term damage that it might cause.
Laminitis in horses

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Every day veterinarians see multiple cases of laminitis, which is a painful disease affecting a horse’s feet. Many of these cases are preventable; one of the most common causes of laminitis is overfeeding, which is a factor easily within our control at most times.

Related: How Long Do Horses Live?

What is Laminitis?

Laminitis stems from the disruption of blood flow to a horse’s laminae; these structures secure the foot’s coffin bone to the hoof wall. Inflammation weakens the laminae, interferes with the bond of the bone and wall, and in severe cases, can cause the two to separate.

Laminitis can affect all feet or just one but is most commonly seen in the front feet. “Laminitis” and “founder” often get used interchangeably, but the latter typically refers to a chronic condition. Laminitis more commonly gets used to describe the symptoms of the initial onset, including pain and inflammation. 

What Causes Laminitis in Horses?

The exact mechanisms that can cause a horse’s feet to get damaged aren’t completely clear, but there are certain events that can produce laminitis. The causes can vary but typically include:

  • Diet changes or digestive upsets from excess grain
  • Toxins released into the horse’s system
  • Severe colic
  • Concussion to their feet also called “road founder”
  • Sudden access to lush forage before their system can adapt, also called “grass founder”
  • Multiple primary foot diseases
  • High doses or prolonged use of corticosteroids
  • An illness or a high fever that results in a metabolic disturbance
  • A retained placenta after foaling
  • An altered gait that causes the horse to bear more weight on a specific leg
  • Bedding containing black walnut shavings

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Risk Factors for Laminitis

Factors that can increase a horse’s risk of laminitis or increase the condition’s severity include:

  • Heavy breeds like draft horses
  • A carbohydrate-rich diet
  • Grain binges, like when a horse gains unrestricted access to its feed room
  • Senior horses with Cushing’s disease
  • Overweight horses
  • Miniature horses, ponies, Morgans, and donkeys
  • Horses who previously had an episode of laminitis

Signs of Acute Laminitis in Horses

  • Lameness that shifts while standing or lameness when the horse turns in circles
  • An increased pulse in the feet
  • Pain in the toes when you apply pressure
  • A “sawhorse stance” where the horse stretches out its front feet to alleviate pressure with their hind feet supporting the weight
  • Feet that feel hot
  • A hesitant or reluctant gait

Related: Horse Articles & FAQ

Signs of Chronic Laminitis in Horses

  • Rings in the hoof wall that get wider from toe to heel
  • Wide white lines called “seedy toe” that have abscesses or seromas
  • An extra-thick or “cresty” neck
  • Bruised soles, called “stone bruises”
  • Flat feet or dropped soles
  • Dished hooves resulting from uneven hoof growth

Laminitis Treatments

Treating horses with laminitis

Laminitis often occurs due to a general or systemic issue elsewhere in a horse’s body; diagnosing and treating this primary cause is typically the first step to treat laminitis. Other treatment options include:

  • Dietary restrictions like limiting grain-based feeds and pasture
  • Administering fluids to a dehydrated or ill horse
  • Stabling the horse on sand or shavings that are soft and encouraging them to reduce pressure by laying down
  • A vet may recommend corrective trimming, therapeutic pads, or frog supports
  • Purging the horse’s digestive tract with mineral oils, especially is it has overeaten
  • Using medications, like:
    • Antibiotics to fight infection
    • Vasodilators and anticoagulants to improve blood flow
    • Anti-endotoxins to reduce the toxicity of bacteria
  • Draining any abscesses that developed
  • Vets may advise you about other therapies that can help a predisposed horse to help prevent the onset of laminitis

Preventative Measures for Laminitis

  • Feed your horse a nutritionally balanced diet that’s appropriate for its breed, activity level, and age
  • Restrict their access to lush pasture, particularly in the springtime
  • Use a reputable farrier to give your horse regular hoof care
  • Notify your vet right away if you suspect a mare has retained placenta

The Long-Term Outlook of Laminitis

Some horses with laminitis lead a long, healthy life after making an uneventful recovery, but others can suffer from severe and irreparable damage. Your equine practitioner can give you more information about the horse’s condition with radiographs, develop a treatment plan, and measure its response to the treatments.

Radiographs show how much coffin bone rotation has occurred and if there is any gas accumulation or abscesses that will affect the horse’s therapy. Your practitioner can help you make a decision that is in the best interest of your horse and assist with therapeutic shoeing.

Related: EPM in horses

Managing Laminitis

Once a horse gets laminitis once, it is likely to recur. Because of bone rotation, many cases become chronic and will not regain their original laminae strength. Laminitis can also disrupt the blood flow to their feet and cause metabolic changes. Managing laminitis in horses includes:

  • Modified diets that provide adequate nutrition based on digestible fiber, oil, and high-quality forage. You should avoid feeding your horse excess carbohydrates like grain
  • A health-maintenance schedule that includes vaccinations and parasite control to help reduce their susceptibility to disease or illness
  • Reduce pasture intake when it suddenly greens up, and avoid grazing lush pastures between the late morning and late afternoon when the plant sugars are highest
  • Routine hoof care like regular trimming and possibly therapeutic shoeing
  • Hoof health nutritional supplements, like biotin

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How to help prevent your horse from suffering from laminitis

Dealing with laminitis in the best way means taking preventative measures by preventing the causes that you can control, like your horse’s diet. Here’s a quick summary of our tips to keep your horse healthy and at less risk for the disease:

  • Remember that an ill, overweight, or stressed hose is at higher risk for laminitis
  • Store all of your grain out of the horse’s reach
  • Introduce them to lush pasture gradually
  • Provide quality, routine hoof and health care
  • Your equine practitioner can help you formulate an appropriate diet plan
  • If you suspect laminitis, treat it like a medical emergency and immediately notify your vet

Related: Gastric Ulcers in Horses

Resources on laminitis in horses:

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