Laminitis: A Serious Threat to your Horse with the Potential to Cripple and Kill

Tue, 12/16/2003 - 00:00
Veterinary News


By Alain Pierre Seheut

In my eighteen years of experience as a farrier, I have seen many cases of Laminitis. Seeing a horse suffer from the terrible pain that goes along with this disease is one of the most difficult things that I have dealt with in my career. The purpose of this article is to help make the reader aware of the seriousness of this disease and its potential to be not only a crippling disease, but a life threatening disease. I hope to familiarize you with this tragic disease, some of its causes, and some ways to prevent your horse from falling victim to laminitis.

One of the reasons we all love horses is because of their beauty in motion. The elegance and supple grace of the horse is dependent on the strength and structural integrity of their feet. When your horse shows early signs of lameness, it is important to keep in mind that laminitis could be responsible. If laminitis is suspected, it is extremely important to not only have your veterinarian involved in the early treatment, but also your farrier. They should work as a team. When caught early, laminitis can be treated quite successfully.


Always Think In Terms of Prevention

Prevention is of the utmost importance. In order to prevent, first and foremost it is your responsibility as a horse owner to educate yourself about the care and management of your horse. You must learn everything you can about your horse in order to be able to recognize early on the subtle changes in your horse's way of going, as well as in his attitude and demeanor. Whether you are a first time owner or someone who has owned many horses, be proactive in your horse's care and management. If at all possible, be present when the vet sees your horse (even for routine visits). Be there when the farrier works on your horse and take this opportunity to ask questions This will assist you in knowing every aspect of your horse and in picking up small idiosyncrasies that you may not have noticed had you not been there for shoeings and vet exams.

Occasionally when I see new horses in my practice, I recognize signs that at one time, the horse has experienced a mild case of laminitis of which the owner was not aware. These are subtle signs that the experienced farrier or veterinarian should be able to detect. The reason for this is that there are many grades of laminitis and in some instances, very mild cases of it can go undetected by the owner.


Laminitis Is a Very Complex Disease

A very basic definition of laminitis is an inflammation of the laminae which is the sensitive tissue that connects the inner hoof wall to the distal phalanx. It is the most serious disease of the equine hoof and is induced by multiple, apparently unrelated causes that result in an acute and/or chronic lameness condition. Laminitis is sometimes difficult to diagnose in the early stages. In my experience, I have seen cases where horses were thought to have navicular syndrome, a sole abscess, or pedal osteitis when in fact, it turned out to be laminitis. If you are unsure, it is important to get a second opinion.

Some of the common causes of laminitis are as follows:

  • Overfeeding of grain to inactive horses (carbohydrate overload)
  • Spring grass affects some horses after they have been on hay all winter
  • Mature fescue grass
  • Various stress factors
  • Abnormal concussion because of trimming and/or shoeing, i.e. long toe/low heel
  • Feet that are unbalanced (shod or unshod)
  • Unilateral lameness for an extended period of time
  • Neglect of the foot, i.e. too long between shoeings or trimming, inconsistent cleaning of the foot
  • Excessive concussion
  • Abnormal weight bearing
  • Overwork for the level of conditioning
  • Drinking too much cold water too fast when hot
  • High fever for an extended period of time
  • Ingesting toxic plants
  • Molds that can be found in hay and grain
  • Retained placenta
  • High blood pressure
  • Pneumonia
  • Pleuritis
  • Potomac Horse Fever
  • Cushings Syndrome
  • Serious systemic disease/infection
  • It may be the result of some changes of the cardiovascular system, endocrine, renal, and gastro intestinal system

One of the most important things to remember is that laminitis is very often a secondary syndrome following an existing injury or disease. For example, a horse that has just undergone an episode of colic or colic surgery is at risk. A horse that has an abscess or injury on the left front and cannot bear his normal weight on that leg is at great risk to develop laminitis on the opposite foot and once that happens, the chances for the other foot to become laminitic are much greater.

Although there are many additional factors that could cause laminitis, the above list comprises the most common causes. Again, good management of the horse is the key to prevention and the reader can use this list of common causes to examine their own management program.


Take Precautions - Don't Take Chances

One of the cases I worked on came about under the following circumstances:

The horse lost a shoe right before he was scheduled to be shipped from Florida to Maryland . The owner left the foot bare and went ahead with the shipping plan. The horse arrived in Maryland two days later and he was crippled. When they tried to take the horse off the van, he could not walk. It took many people and the work of a vet using drugs to enable the horse to stumble down the ramp; obviously in terrible pain. X-rays were taken and the horse was diagnosed with severe laminitis with rotation of the coffin bone.

This is what I think is a possible scenario for what happened in this situation and how the owner could have helped to prevent this. When the horse pulled the shoe, a nail may have injured the sensitive laminae and started what eventually developed, during shipping, into an abscess. Whenever a horse is trailered, he must work relatively hard to keep his balance, yet this horse was put on the van for a very long trip with one shoe off and one shoe on, making one leg essentially shorter than the other thereby adding additional stress to a very long trip and placing undue strain on the affected leg. The abscess worsened and the horse began bearing much more of his weight on the non abscessed foot. He remained this way on the van for an extended period of time and when finally arriving at the destination, he had developed a severe case of laminitis.

In my opinion, it would have been best for the horse if the owner or agent of this horse would not have shipped him at that time. They should have kept him where he was to allow the time for the necessary treatment to resolve the situation. If they had no choice but to ship the horse, then precautions should have been taken. Call the vet. Explain the circumstances and ask what he or she recommends to make the horse's trip a safer one. From the farrier's perspective, the remaining shoes should have been removed. All four feet should have been bandaged with thick foam (1-1/2 inches thick) placed on the sole to absorb some of the concussion and to help support the bottom of the foot and then, when the abscess developed, he would have been in much less pain, therefore, the chances of this tragedy happening would have been greatly reduced. If you are able to travel with the horse or send a groom with the horse, then the feet could have been poulticed with a medicated poultice prior to shipping and then re-poulticed after twelve hours. After proper treatment, this horse survived and has a good quality of life; however, he was no longer able to compete as an upper level dressage horse.

Tradition has led some professionals to believe that severe cases of laminitis are almost hopeless. When dealing with a laminitic horse, it is important to establish the grade and/or severity of the lameness, the condition of the foot, and the overall condition of the horse before considering a possible prognosis. In my experience, and that of a few other farriers who are quite knowledgeable and experienced with laminitis, there have been severe cases that appeared to be hopeless and yet had a positive outcome because the owner did not give up and the horse was treated from every angle. Some of the tools for treatment are a combination of any or all of the following: nutrition, shoeing techniques, drugs, surgical procedures, acupuncture, electro stimulation, therapeutic ultrasound, hydrotherapy, etc.

Remember that there is a different level of expertise in every profession. If at all possible, make sure that your farrier and vet are at or near the top of their vocation. Be proactive in the selection of a veterinarian and farrier that have considerable knowledge and experience in dealing with this disease. Try to determine if they are involved in continuing education to stay up-to-date on the latest research, products, and treatments that can be used as a course of action. Ask them how many laminitic cases they have dealt with, the severity of those cases, how they were treated, and their outcome one-year later.


The Vet and Farrier Should Work as a Team

Laminitis is a disease that can best be treated by a veterinarian and farrier working together as a team, who each have a great deal of experience in this area and who are willing to leave no stone unturned. Those individuals must have great determination, passion, and respect for the horse as their patient. They must be aware of the newest techniques, drugs, etc.

If you are unable to use as your regular farrier one who is experienced and knowledgeable about this disease, then know who the experts are in your area that you may be able to call on in an emergency. BE PREPARED IN ADVANCE! Do not wait until you are faced with a very ill horse to decide to seek out information.

Glue-On Shoes

Over time we have learned a great deal; however, I still see horses being treated without the benefit of the latest techniques, i.e. glue-on shoes. One of the obvious benefits of this glue-on shoe is that there is no need for nails, which removes the additional trauma of nailing a shoe to a very painful hoof. There are many different types of glue-on shoes, some are attached with adhesive to the sole (bottom) of the foot, and some are attached with a fabric impregnated with adhesive and glued directly to the hoof wall. In my opinion, the latter is a much better choice.


Do Your Own Research

Much has been written and published about this topic. In this article I tried to focus on stimulating the curiosity of the horse owner to continue to research this on their own so that they are prepared should they be confronted with this disease. There are many articles, books, symposiums, etc. available for you to educate yourself. In addition, you must be an advocate for your horse and try to surround yourself with knowledgeable professionals who are willing, ready, and able to do whatever it takes for successful treatment of your horse.

I am writing this article from the point of view of a farrier who has dealt with many cases of laminitis. In many cases horses have suffered greatly because of our lack of common sense and basic knowledge. I believe that in some instances, the outcome of these cases could have been positive rather than negative if the owners had been well informed and ready to act at the initial onset of this disease, enabling them to assemble the best team and course of action to treat their horse. Ultimately, we as horse owners have the responsibility to educate ourselves so that we can better manage our horse's care. As a horse lover and advocate for the welfare of the horse, I hope that this article will benefit both the reader and the horse.

Article by farrier Alain Seheut