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Laminitis - prevention is better than cure

Of all the common lameness problems that affect horses and ponies, laminitis and founder are most feared by horse owners. In fact, laminitis is the second biggest killer of horses after colic.

Laminitis occurs when the sensitive, soft tissues connecting the pedal bone to the hoof wall (‘laminae’) are damaged. This allows the pedal bone within the hoof to ‘sink’ downwards and ‘rotate’ backwards.

Clinical signs of laminitis

Laminitis most commonly affects the forefeet of the horse. Some of the most common clinical signs of laminitis include:

  • Shifting weight from one foot to another (“paddling”)
  • Lameness at the walk or trot, especially when the horse turns sharply
  • Palpable heat in the hooves
  • Increased pulses in the digital arteries over the fetlock
  • Decreased mobility, or a reluctance to walk with affected horses often lying down
  • Pain with thumb or hoof tester pressure over the toe region of the sole
  • Abnormal “sawhorse” stance, with the front hooves placed further forward than normal so that the heels carry more weight than the toes.
  • Fluid accumulation and swelling (oedema) of the lower legs
  • Increased heart rate and respiratory rate
  • Trembling, sweating and visible distress
  • Bruised soles or dropped soles with squashed heels or flat, dished hooves
  • Abnormal hoof growth, usually with rings or grooves around the hoof wall or a widened white line
  • Thick “cresty” neck
  • Unnaturally long shaggy haircoat that doesn’t shed at the usual times

What causes laminitis?

Laminitis is usually caused by overeating feeds rich in soluble carbohydrates (mainly found in cereal grains and lush spring or autumn pasture). Feeds rich in starches and sugars can cause a digestive upset in the large intestine. These energy-rich nutrients are usually digested in the small bowel, however if eaten in excess they spill over into the large bowel, where they are fermented by certain species of ‘bad’ bacteria. This results in production of lactic acid in the bowel. As the acid builds up and the normal bacteria in the bowel die, toxic substances known as ‘endotoxins’ are released and enter the bloodstream. It is these endotoxins which are thought to damage the laminae.

Preventing laminitis

Even if you have never experienced laminitis in your horse before, now is the time to make preventative changes in order to minimise your horse’s chances of succumbing to this crippling and potentially fatal disease. Correct feeding, in conjunction with reducing acid build-up in the bowel, are the most effective ways to prevent laminitis.

The basis of feeding horses with laminitis involves formulating a balanced diet high in fat and fibre whilst avoiding sugars (i.e. grains and carbohydrate-rich pastures). This can be achieved by feeding mature lucerne hay that is typically lower in sugars and higher in protein than other hays. Always steer clear of giving cereal grain-based feeds to laminitic horses.

Limiting the amount of pasture consumed by the horse will also help. Pasture sugar levels are lowest in the morning, so avoid grazing after about 11am. During spring and autumn, limit access to pasture to only 90 minutes. Don’t allow laminitic horses to graze stressed short grass, frosted or drought recovering pastures as these may contain high sugar levels.

Founderguard® - A proven preventative for feed-induced laminitis

Products such as FOUNDERGUARD contain ‘Virginiamycin’ and can be added to the feed to help prevent laminitis from occurring. It works by suppressing the activity of the ‘bad’ bacteria which produces lactic acid, thus maintaining the gut microbes in the correct balance. FOUNDERGUARD is a preventative rather than a treatment and cannot correct any physical damage that has already occurred in the feet. However, following an attack of laminitis, FOUNDERGUARD can help prevent the ‘flare-ups’ that frequently occur in the recovery period.

FOUNDERGUARD can also be added to the horse’s feed to prevent low-grade laminitis, which is a mild form of laminitis with no outward signs, so the disease often goes unnoticed. If you suspect your horse has a case of laminitis, call your veterinarian for advice. The sooner you call, the more likely you will be able to successfully treat your horse’s laminitis and limit any lifelong effects. Prevention really is better than cure.

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