You know that excruciating pain when you smash your finger or toenail? Well, it could be worse. Just imagine if, despite the pain, you still had to support your bodyweight on that wounded digit. Ouch! That gives you a bit of an idea what it’s like to be a horse suffering from laminitis.
More commonly called founder, laminitis is an extremely painful and sometimes life-threatening condition in horses where the sensitive layer of the hoof (the lamina) becomes inflamed. The lamina is essentially the glue that attaches the last bone in a horse’s leg to the hoof wall. Because the entire weight of the horse is suspended within the hoof by the lamina, weakening of this glue layer due to inflammation can result in rotation and sinking of the bones. In severe cases, the bone can actually puncture through the sole of the hoof. In such cases, euthanasia is the only humane treatment option.
Sounds pretty terrible, right? So what can you do to prevent this from happening to your horse? Limiting grazing time is a major factor, since laminitis can be triggered by excessive consumption of lush green grass, as seen in the spring or after a summer rain. Similarly, a sudden diet change, especially an abrupt increase in the grain ration, can lead to laminitis. It can also be brought on by serious illnesses. A common springtime scenario is a mare that becomes ill after failing to pass the placenta normally after giving birth. Some hormonal disorders, such as Cushings disease, can also predispose a horse to developing laminitis, as can excessive body weight.
Early recognition and intervention is key to recovery. The most obvious symptom of laminitis is difficulty walking, and some horses are so painful they are forced to spend long periods laying down. Because the front hooves carry the majority of a horse’s weight, the horse may stand with their hind feet positioned far up under the body in an attempt to shift weight off the front hooves. Due to the inflammation, the hoof wall may be noticeably warmer than usual.
Laminitis can be a frustrating disease to treat, especially because relapses are common. Once a horse has had an episode and the lamina have been weakened, future episodes are more likely to occur. Immediate treatment is aimed at decreasing the inflammation and relieving the pain using prescription medications.
Cooling the hooves in ice water can also help. Soft, deep bedding or a special shoe designed to support the sole greatly improves a horse’s comfort and can help prevent sinking and rotation of the bone in the hoof. Corrective hoof trimming and shoeing are also essential.
The old saying ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ definitely holds true when it comes to laminitis. So while we all love the sight of a herd of horses happily grazing in a lush green field, limiting the serving size is extremely important to your horse’s long-term health.
Dr. Amy Hayduk is a veterinarian at the North Peace Veterinary Clinic.