Laminitis is one of the commonest diseases treated by vets from our practice.
It usually affects all four feet and is almost always worst in the front feet in which case the typical laminitic stance is seen. Although much less common, it can be worse in the hind feet or present as a one-foot problem initially. Laminitis should always be regarded as a serious disease as it can have life threatening consequences. Even with intensive care some cases never recover.
Laminitis can affect all horses but it is commonest in ponies. It can occur at any time of year; a common misconception about this disease is that it only strikes during the spring. Some years we see more cases in autumn and winter than spring so vigilance is required all year around.
Reluctance to move.
Shifting weight from one foot to another.
Standing like a ‘rocking horse’ or leaning backwards, putting more weight on the heels.
Heat in the feet.
A bounding pulse can often be felt at fetlock level.
What causes laminitis?
Laminitis is most often caused by an unsuitable diet which is too rich in energy for the animal. Because of the ever growing problems with obesity in horses in the UK, laminitis has become more and more common. Any overweight animal has to be regarded as at risk of developing this debilitating disease. Horses can become insulin-resistant when they are chronically overweight and develop what is known as Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) which has laminitis as one of the main clinical signs. See the topic on ‘condition scoring your horse’ to find out if your horse is at a healthy weight.
A sudden increase in the volume of grass or carbohydrate rich feed is a well-known trigger. Some other diseases may also play a part in inducing laminitis; Cushings disease, metritis, work on hard ground and stress (particularly after surgery) are common players. Steroid medication has been associated with laminitis.
Tests are available to find out if your pony is suffering from a metabolic problem (EMS or Cushings disease) causing laminitis and other signs; ask your vet for advice.
What causes the pain?
There is an alteration in blood flow in the foot during an attack of laminitis. Although blood is pumped into the feet by the heart, it doesn’t reach the laminae which become starved of oxygen and nutrients. Some substances produced by the body, mainly by fat-deposits, have a direct damaging effect on the laminae by promoting breakdown by enzymes (metalloproteinases). Insulin resistance in the laminae may decrease uptake of glucose into the cells of the laminae causing the cells to starve. If the process continues for a long time the laminae weaken and die, causing a breakdown of the junction between the pedal bone and the hoof wall. This is a very painful process. Due to the weakened attachments the pedal bone may rotate or sink inside the hoof capsule.
What should you do if you think your pony has laminitis?
Call your vet. This is not something you can diagnose and treat yourself.
Don’t force the pony to walk, however if it is in a field you must remove it from the pasture, so take it straight to its stable.
A deep bed of shavings is ideal to provide support to the feet and your vet may wish to remove the pony’s shoes in the convalescent stages.
Do not completely starve your pony, this can lead to the development of hyperlipaemia (a disease in which there is too much fat in the blood stream leading to complete liver failure). You do need to restrict the diet (see below).
Cold hosing of the feet or even wrapping in ice packs may be helpful, but only for the first 12 hours.
Feeding a laminitic pony
Controlling the diet of a laminitic pony is essential to successful treatment. No matter how extensive the veterinary care of a laminitic is it will not be successful without correct dietary management. The objective is to feed a high fibre, low carbohydrate and low calorie feed. This can be done using a mix of chopped straw chaff (Dengi Hi-Fi Light) and soaked hay in small quantities.
Each case has to be evaluated individually but as a guideline how much you need to feed your horse depends on its weight and body condition score (BCS). You can estimate the current weight of the pony using a weight tape, for BCS guidelines see the topic ‘condition scoring your horse’.
Feed a normal weight animal 1.5% of its body weight in dry matter daily, an overweight animal 1.25% of its body weight and an obese animal 1% to safely reduce its weight. This is dry weight of the product as it is bought. It is advisable to soak the hay overnight to further extract carbohydrates.
A pony of 300 kg with BCS 3/5 (ideal) can have 4.5 kg daily; 4 kg of hay (before soaking) and 0.5 kg chaff.
A pony of 400 kg with BCS 4/5 (overweight) can have 5.0 kg daily; 4 kg of hay and 1 kg of chaff.
A pony of 400 kg with BCS 5/5 (obese) can only have 4.0 kg daily; 3.5 kg of hay and 0.5 kg of chaff.
To prevent boredom and increase feeding time you can use a small-hole hay net or double the nets and feed little and often (at the very least twice daily).
Grazing on pasture should not be permitted whilst the pony is being dieted. Turn out with a plastic bucket shaped muzzle may be permitted, ask your vet for advice.
You should regularly monitor the animal’s weight to ensure reduction and consult your vet if significant weight loss is not occurring.
A feed supplement rich in vitamins and minerals such as Top Spec Anti Lam should be added in cases requiring prolonged dieting. Alternatively, Pool House Hoof Supplement provides all the essential micronutrients for healthy hoof growth and can be added to the basic diet.
How can you prevent laminitis?
Do not allow your pony to become overweight – you should be able to feel its ribs easily and it should not have a crest. Judges of pony classes should be encouraged to mark down overweight ponies. Many vets feel that the fashion for grossly fat ponies in the show ring is a major cause of laminitis. If you have any doubts about your pony’s body condition score, ask your vet for advice.
If you are worried about an underlying metabolic condition in your animal, ask your vet for advice. Preventative medication might be indicated.
Watch out all year round for sudden flushes of grass, and don’t be off guard in the autumn. Make sure feed storage areas are inaccessible to your animal and locked.
Keep your pony’s feet regularly trimmed.
Controlling the diet of a laminitic pony is essential to successful treatment. No matter how extensive the veterinary care of a laminitic is it will not be successful without correct dietary management.
Estimate the current weight of the pony using a weight tape.
Your vet will advise as to the ideal weight and it is this weight that should be used to make all dietary calculations.
The total DRY MATTER intake of ALL feeds should not exceed 1.25% of the ideal weight.
Two thirds of this should be in the form of long fibre (i.e. hay). The remaining third should be a Dengi Hi Fi Lite or equivalent.
Example a 450kg pony that should weigh 400 kg.
1.25% body weight = 5kg.
Thus 5 kg is the TOTAL feed intake permitted in 24 hours.
1.6 kg Dengi Hi Fi Lite and 3.4 kg of year old hay. (the hay can be soaked after weighing). A feed rich in vitamins and minerals such as Top Spec Anti Lam should be added in cases requiring prolonged dieting.
Two feeds per day.
Am 1.7kg hay plus 0.8 kg Dengi + 75 g Top Spec Anti Lam
Pm 1.7 kg hay plus 0.8 kg Dengi + 75g Top Spec Anti Lam.
To make the diet more interesting for the horse a small quantity of carrots and cabbage leaves can be added.
Monitor weight to ensure reduction and consult vet if significant weight loss is not occurring.
Grazing on pasture should not be permitted whilst pony / horse is being dieted. Turn out with a plastic bucket shaped muzzle is permitted.