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!

Colic, Laminitis & Starch Levels in Horse Diets

Many horse owners are concerned about carbohydratelevels in their horses diet, particularly if the horse is prone to colic or laminitis.  Often, the owner will look to simply feed a product with a lower starch or NSC percentage.  But that’s often not the best, or only, solution, particularly if elevated levels of performance are expected of the horse, because the percent of starch in the feed isn’t what matters to a horse’s digestive system – what truly matters is the total amount of starch that enters the digestive system per meal

When a horse consumes too much NSC in one meal, the starches and sugars may not be completely broken down and absorbed in the small intestine.  Undigested starch getting to the hindgut may cause rapid fermentation by the microbes (gut bugs) that live in the cecum and large intestine, which  results in gas production & lactic acid buildup.  The gas buildup can result in colic, while the lactic acid accumulation drops the pH of the gut, starting a chain of events that may compromise the blood supply to the hoof, resulting in laminitis.

Here’s the catch: all horses need some NSC in the diet to live and work for you – it is a simple biological need.  Hard working horses need higher, but still controlled, intakes of starches and sugars to provide readily available energy for work and to replace the glycogen (stored energy) that may have been used up during intense exercise.  NSC intake is important for horses to recover from hard work. 

If higher total intakes of starch and sugar are required to maintain energy levels, but the potential for digestive upset or laminitic episodes is a primary concern, the horse may benefit from more frequent but smaller meals during periods when extra calories are needed to recover from hard work.  The higher daily intake, using more frequent feedings, will provide additional starch and sugar, as well as other nutrients your horse needs, while helping reduce the risk of digestive disturbances related to higher starch intake in a single meal.