Laminitis in Horses

Laminitis in Horses

Everyday veterinarians across the country see hundreds of cases of laminitis, a painful disease which affects the horse’s feet.  By learning more about laminitis, its causes, signs and treatments, you may be able to minimize the risks of laminitis in your horse, or control the long-term damage if it does occur.  Consider that a common cause of laminitis is overfeeding – a management factor that is normally within our control.

Laminitis Defined:
Laminitis results from the disruption (constant, intermittent, or short-term) of blood flow to the sensitive and insensitive laminae.  These laminae structures within the foot secure the coffin bone (the wedge-shaped bone within the foot) to the hoof wall.  Inflammation often permanently weakens the laminae and interferes with the wall/bone bond.  In severe cases, the bone and the hoof wall can separate.  In these situations, the coffin bone may rotate within the foot, be displaced down-ward (“sink”) and eventually penetrate the sole.  Laminitis can affect one or all feet, but is most often seen in the front feet concurrently.  The term “Laminitis” and “founder” are used interchangeably.  However, founder usually refers to a chronic (long-term) condition associated with rotation of the coffin bone.  Whereas, acute laminitis refers to symptoms associated with a sudden initial attack, including pain and inflammation of the laminae.
    While the exact mechanisms by which the feet are damaged remain a mystery, certain precipitating events can produce laminitis.  Although laminitis occurs in the feet, the underlying cause is often a disturbance elsewhere in the horse’s body. 
Causes vary from:

  • Digestive upsets due to grain overload.
  • Sudden access to excessive amounts of lush forage. 
  • High fever or illness.
  • Severe colic.
  • Retained placenta in the mare after foaling.
  • Various primary foot diseases.
  • Prolonged use or high doses of corticosteroids.

Signs of acute laminitis include the following:

  • Lameness, especially when a horse is turning in circles.
  • Heat in the feet.
  • Increased digital pulse in the feet.
  • Pain in the toe region when pressure is applied with hoof testers.
  • Reluctant or hesitant gait.
  • A “sawhorse stance” with the front feet stretched out in front to alleviate pressure on the toes and the hind feet “camped out” or

    positioned further back than normal to bear more weight.
    Signs of chronic laminitis may include the following:

        • Rings in the hoof wall that become wider as they are followed from toe to heel.
        • Bruised soles or “stone bruises”.
        • Widened white line, commonly called “seedy toe,” with occurrence of seromas (blood pockets) and/or abcesses.
        • Dropped soles or flat feet.
        • Thick, “cresty” neck

    The sooner treatment begins, the better the chance for recovery.  Treatment will depend on specific circumstances but may include the following:

    • Diagnosing and treating the primary problem.
    • Dietary restrictions.
    • Treating with mineral oil, via a nasogastric tube, to purge the horse’s digestive tract, especially if the horse has overeaten.
    • Administering fluids if the horse is ill or dehydrated.
    • Administering other drugs, such as antibiotics to fight infection, anti-endotoxins to reduce bacterial toxicity.
    • Stabling the horse of soft ground, such as sand or shavings.
    • Opening and draining any abcesses which may develop.

    Long-term Outlook:
    Many horses that develop laminitis make uneventful recoveries and go on to lead long, useful lives.  Unfortunately, others suffer such severe, irreparable damage that they are, for humane reasons, euthanized.
    The best way to deal with laminitis is preventing the causes under your control.  Keep all grain stored securely out of the reach of horses.  Introduce your horse to lush pasture gradually.  Be aware that when a horse is ill, under stress or overweight, it is especially at risk.  Consult a dr. at Village Veterinary Hospital to formulate a good dietary plan.  Provide good, routine health and hoof care.  And if you suspect laminitis, consider it a medical emergency and contact our office at 505-869-2627.