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Understanding Laminitis: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

Laminitis is a debilitating hoof condition that affects horses and can have serious consequences if left untreated. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for laminitis, providing you with a clear understanding of this painful condition.

Laminitis, often referred to as founder in other countries, occurs when the sensitive laminae, the tissues that connect the hoof wall to the skeletal structure of the foot, become inflamed and damaged. This inflammation disrupts the blood flow to the hoof, leading to severe pain, lameness, and, in severe cases, the rotation or sinking of the coffin bone.

Causes of laminitis can vary, including metabolic disorders like Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and Cushing's disease, as well as dietary factors, excessive weight bearing on one limb, or trauma. Recognising the early symptoms of laminitis is crucial for prompt intervention. Look out for signs such as lameness, heat or pounding in the hoof, increased digital pulse, and a "rocked back" stance.

Treatment for laminitis involves a multi-disciplinary approach, including addressing the underlying cause, managing pain and inflammation, implementing corrective hoof care, and dietary changes. With proper care, early detection, and a proactive treatment plan, horses suffering from laminitis can experience improved quality of life and a full recovery.

In this article, we will delve into the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for laminitis, providing you with valuable insights to protect your horse from this potentially devastating condition. Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be regarded as a substitute for professional veterinary advice. Always consult with a qualified veterinarian for accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment plans.

What is laminitis?

Laminitis, often referred to as founder, occurs when the sensitive laminae, the tissues that connect the hoof wall to the skeletal structure of the foot, become inflamed and damaged. This inflammation disrupts the blood flow to the hoof, leading to severe pain, lameness, and, in severe cases, the rotation or sinking of the coffin bone.


Images courtesy University of Pennsylvania

Laminitis can affect horses of all breeds and ages, and it can occur in one or multiple hooves. The condition can range from mild to severe, but any indication that your horse or pony has laminitis you should seek immediate veterinary advice.

Causes of laminitis

The causes of laminitis can vary, and it is often a result of a combination of factors.

  1. One common cause is metabolic disorders such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and Cushing's disease. Horses with these conditions are more prone to laminitis due to hormonal imbalances and insulin resistance.

  2. Dietary factors can also contribute to the development of laminitis. Horses that consume excessive amounts of carbohydrate-rich feeds, such as lush pasture or grain-based concentrates, are at a higher risk. Rapid changes in diet or overfeeding can also trigger laminitis.

  3. Previous history of laminitis Once a horse has had the condition, there’s a much greater risk of it happening again, so he’ll require careful management

  4. Excessive weight bearing on one limb, trauma to the hoof, or prolonged standing on hard surfaces. It is important to identify and address the underlying cause to effectively manage and treat laminitis.

Common symptoms of laminitis

Recognising the early symptoms of laminitis is crucial for prompt intervention and preventing further damage. While some horses may exhibit obvious signs of lameness, others may show more subtle symptoms. Here are some common signs to look out for:

1. Lameness: Horses with laminitis may show signs of lameness, especially when turning or walking on hard surfaces (look out for short strides, a pottery looking walk). The lameness may be more pronounced in one foot or affect multiple feet.

2. Heat or pounding in the hoof: Inflammation caused by laminitis can lead to increased heat and a pounding sensation in the affected hoof. This can be felt by placing your hand on the hoof or by using a hoof tester.

3. Increased digital pulse: Laminitis can cause an increase in the digital pulse, which can be felt on the back of the fetlock. A strong, bounding pulse is a common indicator of inflammation in the hoof.

4. "Rocked back" stance: Horses with laminitis may adopt a "rocked back" stance, shifting their weight onto their hind limbs to alleviate pressure on the painful front feet. This is often seen as a protective measure to reduce pain.

If you notice any of these symptoms, it is essential to seek veterinary attention promptly to prevent further progression of the condition.

Diagnosing laminitis

Diagnosing laminitis involves a combination of clinical examination, hoof testing, and diagnostic imaging. Your veterinarian will assess the horse's gait, observe the stance, and evaluate the digital pulse.

Radiographs, or X-rays, are often taken to assess the position of the coffin bone within the hoof capsule. This helps determine the severity of the condition and guides the treatment plan. In some cases, additional tests may be required to identify underlying metabolic disorders or other contributing factors.

Treatment options for laminitis

Treatment for laminitis involves a multi-disciplinary approach, addressing the underlying cause, managing pain and inflammation, implementing corrective hoof care, and making dietary changes. The goal is to relieve pain, promote healing, and prevent further damage to the hoof structure.

1. Addressing the underlying cause: If the laminitis is caused by a metabolic disorder, such as EMS or Cushing's disease, medication and management strategies will be implemented to manage these conditions. This may include dietary changes, weight management, and medication to regulate hormone levels.

2. Pain and inflammation management: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may be prescribed to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation. Your veterinarian may also recommend cold therapy, such as ice packs or cold water soaking, to reduce heat and inflammation in the hoof.

3. Corrective hoof care: Proper hoof care is crucial for managing laminitis. Your farrier or veterinarian may trim or shoe the hooves to relieve pressure on the affected areas. Specialised shoeing techniques, such as therapeutic shoeing or frog support pads, may be used to provide additional support and promote proper hoof alignment.

4. Dietary changes: Dietary modifications are often necessary to prevent further episodes of laminitis and support hoof health. This may involve reducing or eliminating high-carbohydrate feeds, restricting pasture access, and providing a balanced diet rich in fibre and essential nutrients. Hay soaking is essential to remove the sugars from the hay, soaking hay for a minimum of 2 hours up to 12 hours but your veterinarian or equine nutritionist can help develop a suitable feeding plan for your horse and instruct on the length of time your hay should be soaked for.

Preventing laminitis in horses

Prevention plays a vital role in managing laminitis and protecting your horse from its debilitating effects. Here are some strategies to help prevent laminitis:

1. Control diet and weight: Monitor your horse's diet carefully, ensuring they receive a balanced ration appropriate for their age, activity level, and metabolic needs. Avoid sudden changes in diet, and limit access to lush pastures during periods of high sugar content. Regular exercise and weight management can also reduce the risk of laminitis.

2. Maintain regular hoof care: Regular hoof trimming or shoeing is essential for maintaining proper hoof balance and supporting overall hoof health. Work closely with your farrier to ensure the hooves are trimmed and balanced correctly, taking into account any predispositions to laminitis.

3. Provide suitable exercise: Regular exercise helps improve circulation and hoof health, reducing the risk of laminitis. However, avoid excessive or high-impact exercise, especially on hard surfaces, as this can contribute to hoof trauma. Consult with your veterinarian to develop an appropriate exercise routine for your horse.

4. Monitor for early warning signs: Regularly check your horse for any signs of lameness, heat in the hooves, increased digital pulse, or changes in stance. Early intervention is key to preventing the progression of laminitis.

Natural remedies for laminitis

While veterinary care is essential for managing laminitis, some natural remedies may complement traditional treatments. It is important to note that these remedies should be used under veterinary guidance and should not replace conventional treatment options. Here are some natural remedies that may aid in the management of laminitis:

1. Herbal supplements: Certain herbs, such as devil's claw and turmeric, have anti-inflammatory properties and may help reduce pain and inflammation associated with laminitis. However, always consult with your veterinarian before administering any herbal supplements to ensure they are safe and appropriate for your horse.

2. Homeopathic remedies: Homeopathy is a holistic approach to healing that uses highly diluted substances to stimulate the body's natural healing mechanisms. Some homeopathic remedies, such as arnica and rhus toxicodendron, are commonly used to manage pain and inflammation associated with laminitis. Consult with a qualified homeopathic veterinarian for appropriate remedies and dosages.

Always consult with your veterinarian before implementing any natural remedies to ensure they are safe, appropriate, and complement the conventional treatment plan.

Image: Devils Claw

Managing laminitis in the long term

Managing laminitis in the long term requires a commitment to ongoing care, regular monitoring, and lifestyle adjustments. Here are some tips to help manage laminitis effectively:

1. Regular veterinary check-ups: Schedule regular check-ups with your veterinarian to monitor your horse's condition, adjust treatment plans if necessary, and address any concerns or changes in symptoms.

2. Continued hoof care: Maintain a regular hoof care routine, including trimming or shoeing as recommended by your farrier. Regular hoof care plays a crucial role in supporting hoof health and preventing further laminitis episodes.

3. Proper exercise and turnout: Provide regular exercise and turnout for your horse, taking into consideration any limitations or restrictions based on their condition. Depending on your paddock, a grazing muzzle maybe required to help restrict grass/sugar intake and encourage more movement around the field. Consult with your veterinarian for appropriate exercise and turnout recommendations.

4. Monitor diet: Continue to monitor and adjust your horse's diet to support their overall health and prevent weight gain or metabolic imbalances. Regularly consult with an equine nutritionist or your veterinarian to ensure your horse's dietary needs are met.

Support and resources for owners of horses with laminitis

Managing laminitis can be challenging, both emotionally and practically. Fortunately, there are numerous resources available to support horse owners dealing with this condition. Here are some valuable resources:

1. Veterinary support: Work closely with your veterinarian to develop a personalised treatment plan and seek their guidance throughout the management process. They can provide valuable advice, monitor your horse's progress, and make adjustments as needed.

2. Farrier expertise: Collaborate with a knowledgeable and experienced farrier. They can provide valuable insights, recommend appropriate shoeing techniques, and help maintain proper hoof balance.

3. Equine nutritionists: Consult with an equine nutritionist to develop a balanced feeding plan that supports your horse's overall health and addresses any specific dietary concerns related to laminitis. They can help identify suitable feeds, supplements, and appropriate caloric intake.

4. Support groups and online communities: Joining support groups or online communities for horse owners dealing with laminitis can provide a valuable network of support, shared experiences, and access to helpful resources. These communities can offer emotional support, practical advice, and a sense of camaraderie.

Remember, each horse's journey with laminitis is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. Patience, persistence, and a proactive approach are crucial when managing laminitis.

Conclusion: Taking proactive steps to prevent and manage laminitis

Laminitis is a painful and potentially debilitating condition that requires prompt diagnosis and comprehensive treatment. By understanding the causes, recognising the symptoms, and implementing appropriate treatment options, you can protect your horse from the devastating effects of laminitis.

Remember, early intervention is key. Regular veterinary check-ups, proper hoof care, and a well-balanced diet are essential for preventing laminitis and managing the condition in the long term. Lean on the support and expertise of your veterinarian, farrier, and equine nutritionist to ensure your horse receives the best care possible.

While natural remedies may complement conventional treatments, always seek veterinary guidance before using them. By taking a proactive approach and staying informed, you can provide your horse with the best chance of a comfortable and healthy life, free from the pain of laminitis.

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