Laminitis – What is it?

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Laminitis is a serious disease of the equine foot that can lead to long term, crippling changes in the hoof. It is usually explained in scientific terms that can be difficult to understand. In a healthy horse, the pedal bone inside the hoof is attached to the wall by laminae. These are like velcro. One part stuck to the bone and one part stuck to the hoof wall.

Laminitis, in very simple terms, is the breakdown of this ‘velcro’ (laminae). It results in the failure of the attachment between the bone and the hoof wall. Your horse may already have mild laminitis without you knowing. Sometimes professionals call this “sub clinical laminitis” or “low grade laminitis”. Commonly, horses are in this stage for a long period of time, even years. Quite often, horses that are tender footed are simply in a state of constant low grade laminitis.

In an acute case, the horse will experience unrelenting pain and lameness as the bone tears away from the hoof wall and is driven down inside the hoof capsule by the full weight of the horse. This is referred to as pedal bone rotation or founder. When this happens the horse owner is often devastated: feeling guilty and heartbroken at the animal’s suffering and caught in a whirlwind of grief, vet bills and the major task of managing the horse’s recovery.

What causes Laminitis?

  • Pasture high in sugars – even skinny horses, and horses in work can get laminitis eating too much grass that is high in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC’s) fructan, sucrose and starch (sugars). The sugars in pasture vary seasonally ie spring or autumn flushes; throughout the day depending on levels of photosynthesis; & climatically ie drought or frost both of which stress grass and raise sugar levels.
  • Over feeding grain – any horse can get laminitis from overfeeding or feeding products too high in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC’s), starch and fructan, in addition to pasture and hay. Horses that overeat in one binge ie “break in & gorge” on grain can develop laminitis rapidly.
  • Obesity – and its metabolic consequences is one of the major causes of laminitis. Your obese horse is like a ticking time bomb!