Laminitis in Horses – What can you do?

Many times when our animals are sick it can be hard to know what to do – how to feed them, how to help them, and how to make them feel better. With laminitis, the main thing you can do as a horse owner is to take steps to prevent it from happening. But if your horse does fall victim to this disease, knowing the appropriate diet and way to feed will help with the healing process.

Prevention of Laminitis
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “The best offense is a good defense.” That is certainly true with the hoof disease laminitis – here are some simple steps to improve your defense and help prevent this disease:

  • Keep concentrate meals at 5 lbs. or less to avoid overwhelming the capacity of the upper GI tract (prevent starch leakage to the hind-gut)
  • Restrict turn out time for those not used to spring grasses. This helps control intake of grasses that are high in sugar.
  • Sugar content (fructans) in grasses may be higher mid day & afternoon. Time turnout in the evening, nighttime and early morning hours

Closely monitor ponies and older horses, as they are often more prone to acute and/or chronic laminitis:

  • Restrict turn out time
  • Utilize a grazing muzzle when appropriate

Feeding the Laminitic Horse
For horses that are prone to bouts of  laminitis or  who are recovering from an episode with the disease, the overall diet is very important.

1. Feed a low-calorie, controlled carbohydrate feed

Turning horses out to pasture at the right time of day may help prevent laminitis

2. Feed smaller meals on a more frequent schedule

3. To aid in damaged hoof repair and growth, look for feeds that also contain guaranteed levels of:

For the laminitic horse, balance is key – once tissue damage has occurred it is imperative to provide a well balanced diet to encourage repair and healing. While it is important to manage calories closely, particularly calories from starches and sugar, we also have to strive to balance the overall diet for the best result.  Understanding the nutrient content of the hay your horse is eating is important to determine the nutrient content of the total overall diet (hay plus concentrate). It is a great idea to consider having your hay tested and factoring those results into your feeding program.

Understanding Laminitis

If you suspect laminitis, call your vet immediately!

Spring is upon us and hopefully warmer weather has arrived where you are! Many of our horses will soon begin to receive a substantial amount of their daily nutrients from new growth pasture.

While it can be a relief to turn horses out on green pasture after a long winter (for both the horse and the owner), these horses can be faced with a challenge that strikes terror in the hearts of horse owners everywhere: Laminitis.

Laminitis is a specific disease of the foot, which is characterized by damage or inflammation at the junction between the sensitive and insensitive laminae. This important area allows for the attachment of the hoof wall to the coffin bone within the hoof. Laminae become inflamed when an accumulation of toxins and lack of blood flow is found in the hoof. Although laminitis can be caused by a myriad of different things, we classify it in two ways:

  1. Metabolic laminitis
  2. Mechanical laminitis

Metabolic laminitis is more common of the two types and often coincides with some sort of toxemia in the body. It has been reported that approximately 45% of laminitis cases were triggered by lush, green growing pasture. While lush grass is one known cause, laminitis can also be caused by grain-overload (think feeding meals that are way too large, or your horse breaking into the feed room) or even by a retained placenta in a broodmare.

It can be hard to make the connection between something that the horse eats to a hoof disease, so let’s walk through an example: Your horse has been turned out on lush spring pasture that he hasn’t had access to all winter. He over consumes the rich grass which in turn overwhelms the upper digestive tract, and leaks into the hind-gut (cecum/large colon). Certain microorganisms in this part of the GI tract rapidly ferment the starches and sugars that leaked into the hind-gut resulting in an alteration in the pH. This change in the pH level kills off critical populations of cecal and colonic bacteria (good bugs) that help in the digestion process. Not only is the digestion process inhibited, but these dead bacteria release endotoxins which get into the horses blood. The endotoxins in the blood restrict blood flow to the hoof, damage those delicate laminae tissues and result in laminitis.

The second type, mechanical laminitis, is usually trauma induced. Overload on a horse’s foot from excessive body weight, riding on a hard-surface, or where the horse is trying to lessen the pain from a separate injury by shifting more weight to the good leg can all be causes of mechanical laminitis. A well known example of mechanical laminitis is Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby Winner.

In either metabolic or mechanical situations laminitis can happen in any foot, but most commonly it will occur in the front feet of horses on pasture. They will have a tender footed stance and act like they are “walking on egg shells”. A close inspection may show that the horse is shifting their weight—maybe backwards or even from side to side in an effort to compensate for the pain that they are experiencing in their affected leg or legs. If you find your horse in this situation, or suspect laminitis for any reason, contact your veterinarian immediately!

What is “Normal” for my horse?

We’ve all heard the warnings for proper horse care: monitor your horse frequently, and if something is not normal, call your veterinarian. But what is “normal” for your horse? While it is a good idea to pay attention to your horses’ vitals when you do not suspect that anything is wrong in order to establish a baseline, there will be times when that is not feasible.  What if you have a new horse on your place that you fear is not feeling quite right? Or perhaps you are taking care of a friend’s horse and are not familiar with how this horse normally functions?

The following is what is considered “normal” for most horses – following this chart when you suspect a problem will help pinpoint what is wrong and allow you to give a more accurate report to your vet.

  1. Temperature: Adults –  99.5°F – 100.5°F; Foals 100.5°F – 101.5°F
    1. To take your horse’s temperature: Use a large animal thermometer or a human rectal thermometer held in the rectum for 2 minutes. *Note – temperature will be elevated after exercise.
  2. Heart Rate: Adults – 24-36 beats per minute; Foals – 40-60 beats per minute.
    1. To take a heart rate: Using a stethoscope, listen at the wall of the chest, just below the elbow.
  3. Respiratory Rate: Adults – 12-24 breaths per minute; Foals – 32-54 breaths per minute.
    1. Note: respiratory rate may be influenced by stress, excitement, or exercise.
  4. Mucous Membranes: Mucous membranes should be pink and moist, with a capillary refill rate of 1-2 seconds.
    1. To test the capillary refill time: Part the horse’s lips to expose the gums. If you press gently and briefly on the upper jaw with your thumb you will see the blood is forced from the gum. Count how long it takes for the gum to return to its normal color.
    2. Always check mucous membranes in normal light or with a flashlight. Do not use fluorescent lighting, which can cause membranes to look unusually pale. Abnormal membranes are pale/white, blue, dark red, or purple in color.

Physical Exam:

  1. Look for differences in the left vs. right sides of the body.
  2. Check for discharge from the eyes, nostrils, mouth, rectum, vulva, sheath, wounds, abscesses, or any other evidence of trauma.
  3. Note if the horse has passed manure or if there is diarrhea on its tail.
  4. Listen on both sides of the flanks for normal gastrointestinal activity.
  5. Check to see if the abdomen is distended.
  6. Check to see if the horse is working hard just to breathe

Attitude:

  1. Is the horse alert and interested, dull or depressed, or acting differently than normal?
  2. Can the horse walk and move normally at the walk and trot?
  3. Is the horse bearing weight equally on all four limbs?
  4. Has the horse eaten or drunk and is there evidence of fresh manure?
  5. Note if the fencing/stall shows signs of a struggle.
  6. Be sure to check other horses at your facility for similar signs/symptoms.

Hoof Health and Your Farrier

If your horse has ever had issues with his or her feet, the old adage, ‘no hoof, no horse’ could not ring truer.  When considering hoof health, multiple factors influence the state of your horse’s feet including nutrition, conformation, environment, use and overall management and care.

One of the keys to success of healthy feet is your farrier.  He or she plays a critical role in the maintenance and ongoing assessment, treatment and wellness of your horse.  When selecting a farrier to work with you and your horse, there is more than just price to consider.  Here are some questions to ask to learn more:

  1. What schooling or certification have they received?
  2. If new to the industry, have they completed an apprenticeship?  Is the Master known for doing good work?  Ask around your barn, veterinarian, tack or feed store to learn more.
  3. Have they worked with a veterinarian?  Are they willing to work with a veterinarian?
  4. Are they a member of a professional organization such as the American Farrier’s Association or the American Association of Professional Farriers?
  5. What do their current or former clients have to say about them?  Check references.
Rasping hind foot
Deb, my farrier, rasps Ferris’s left hind foot after a trim.

Consult with your farrier on the appropriate frequency for trimming.  For example, I live in a Northern climate, where hoof growth is slower in winter months and faster in summer months.  My farrier trims my horses every 4-5 weeks in the summer and 6-8 weeks in the winter.

The genetics of your horse have a significant impact on the management program.   Some horses are blessed with good heels, strong walls and naturally cupping soles.  Others may have issues with low slung heels, flares or misshapen soles.  Such feet may require more frequent or special trimming methods and in some cases, shoes may be required to maintain soundess.  Refer to your farrier and vetrinarian to determine if this solution is best for your horse.

Be sure you are regularly picking out your horse’s feet with a hoof pick between farrier visits.  One of the best times to do this is grooming before and after work.  Check for rocks, bruises and signs of concern, such as white line disease or thrush.  The frequent time spent observing  can help you understand the overall health of his feet.   In partnership with your farrier, your efforts toward regular care of his feet will go a long way toward soundess for years to come.

Managing Horses with Gastric Ulcers

Last week a horse owner contacted me about changing her horses diet.   She stated that they are ¾ of the way through show season and he is just “off his game”.  It seems that the horse was showing a lack of appetite and not finishing his grain. In addition, his disposition seemed to have changed, being rather grumpy and his performance level was suffering.  A few times he had shown signs of mild colic over the past two months.

I suggested the owner contact her veterinarian, as it sounded like the horse may have an ulcer.  I explained that the percentage of horses with ulcers continues to increase, and that higher intensity levels of training are correlated with an increase in ulcer incidence.  The ulcers often occur in the upper third of the stomach, which does not have a mucus layer and does not secrete bicarbonate that helps to buffer stomach acid.  It is also interesting to note that ulcers have not been founded on pastured horses.  This is likely due to the fact that as a horse grazes, it produces large amounts of saliva, which contain the bicarbonate and amylase needed to provide a buffer for the stomach lining. 

The owner was not pleased with my answer, but agreed to call the vet.  Within the week she contacted me and said the horse had been diagnosed with a gastric ulcer.  He was now on medication, but we needed to make dietary changes as well.  I suggested the following “back to basic” steps to help manage her horses condition:

  1. Allow the horse to be turned out or hand grazed.
  2. If access to pasture is not possible, good quality hay is a must.  Recent studies indicate that legume hay is an excellent choice, possibly due to the high calcium content which may help to serve as a buffer.
  3. Breaking the daily rations into smaller more frequent meals also help keep saliva production constant and protect the stomach lining – more like “grazers” instead of “meal eaters”.
  4. High starch diets also tend to aggravate ulcers due to increased acid production. A high fat high fiber feed is ideal.

In essence, to help keep them from suffering the ill effects of ulcers,  we need to let our horses just be horses.

Feeding a horse with Cushing’s Syndrome

As the number of horses known to have Cushing’s Syndrome increases, questions on how to feed horses with this condition also increase.  As a starting management practice, your veterinarian may recommend pergolide as an added medication for your horse.  This is available from a number of pharmaceutical sources by prescription.

When it comes to feeding them, though, here are a few tips that may help make life a little easier:

  1. If your Cushing’s horse has some joint problems, you may want to also consider using one of the chondroitin sulfate + glucosamine products that are available in supplement form.
  2. Cushing’s syndrome horses require a hay or pasture source that is low in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), so you might want to have your forage tested.
  3. They do well on senior feeds that are fortified with lysine, methionine, biotin, vitamin E and organic trace minerals (copper, zinc, manganese and selenium) to help maintain muscle mass, support hoof growth and support immune response.
  4. Feeding directions need to be followed to make certain enough senior feed is being fed as these older horses may not be able to utilize forage very efficiently.
  5. If your horse is not maintaining weight, you may need to increase the feeding rate of the senior feed or add a low starch, rice bran based high fat supplement.

Most senior horses with Cushing’s Syndrome do very well on a senior feed and appropriate medication.  Cost of pergolide can vary greatly and your veterinarian may be able to direct you to the best source.  Good luck, and please let us know if we can help!

Management Practices: Reducing the Risk of Colic

Colic is one of the leading health problems facing horse owners. According to the USDA’s National Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) Equine Study 1998, about 4% of the horse population experiences colic each year. Colic rated second only to old age as the cause of death in equines. The same study indicated that horse owners most commonly identified “unknown” causes for colic, followed by gas colic and feed related.

Feeding management and non-feeding-related management practices can all have an impact on reducing the risk of colic.

The following management practices can aid in reducing the risk of colic:

  1. Parasite Control: Includes proper sanitation and regular deworming per program.
  2. Dental Care: Be sure to schedule regular dental exams as needed.
  3. Fresh Clean Water: A lack of water in both cold and warm weather may increase risk of colic.
  4. Consistent Diet: Avoiding sudden changes in either hay or grain may help reduce risk.  A survey by Dr. Noah Cohen et al in Texas indicated forage changes are associated with colic more frequently than changes in the grain portion of the diet.
  5. Avoid Starch Overload. Starch overload, or allowing undigested starch to get to the hindgut, is a major cause of gas colic.  Limiting meal size, maintaining equal feeding intervals, and selecting controlled starch feed products for a feeding program, may help reduce the risk of starch overload. 
  6. Feed Additives. Some feed additives, such as direct fed microbials and yeast culture, may also be beneficial in improving forage utilization and digestion.

Colic prevention—rather than colic treatment—is clearly much better for both the horse and the horse owner.

“Unwanted” horse does not mean undeserving

The plight of the unwanted horse is something on every horse owner’s mind these days. No matter the opinion on how the horse industry got here, one thing is for sure – these horses need proper care.

If you are fortunate enough to have the resources to take in a neglected horse, but haven’t ever had to rehabilitate one before, it can be a challenging opportunity. Care needs to be taken to bring a starving horse back to health in a slow and steady manner.

To help you in your mission, the Nutrena team partenered with the Unwanted Horse Coalition, as well as Intervet Schering-Plough and the American Farrier’s Association, to develop the Caregiver’s Guide to Rehabilitating a Neglected Horse.

Click here to download your free copy of the “Caregiver’s Guide to Rehabilitating a Neglected Horse”.

How to feed HYPP Horses: Potassium is key

The main dietary goal in managing an HYPP (Hyperkalemic Periodic Paralysis) horse is keeping total dietary potassium under 1.0%. It is key to look at the total dietary potassium instead of just the hay or just the grain source.

To figure out total dietary potassium (or any other nutrient level), use the following formula:

((Pounds of hay x percent potassium in hay) + (Pounds of grain x percent potassium in grain)) / Total pounds of feed.

For example, if you are feeding 15 lbs a day of a grass hay that measures 1.0% potassium, along with 6 lbs a day of a grain mix that measures 0.8% potassium, then your calculations would be as follows:

((15 x 0.01) + (6 x 0.008)) / 21 = 0.942% total dietary potassium.

Find out the potassium of your hay source, and of your grain, and then you can figure out your horse’s total dietary potassium level.