Equine laminitis: definition and causes

Equine laminitis: definition and causes

Sep 21, 2023Valerie De Clerck

Laminitis is a painful condition of the hooves in horses and ponies that requires urgent treatment. In other words, a rather serious matter. Because it is better to prevent than to cure, we have listed a few causes of laminitis below. Spoiler alert: there’s quite a few of them.

Laminitis for dummies

What is laminitis, really?

A laminitic horse or pony suffers from inflamed tissue between the hoof wall and the coffin bone (the third phalanx). This tissue consists of layers, called the laminae or lamellae, and they inflame when the blood supply to the hoof is interrupted.

In the worst case, the laminae let go, causing the coffin bone to sink through the sole of the hoof. This is life-threatening for your horse or pony.

What is causing laminitis?

Laminitis can have many causes. One thing is certain: this kind of inflammation always arises as a result of a problem somewhere else in your horse’s body. Let’s list a few:

1. Metabolic disorders

Metabolic disorders such as insulin resistance, hyperinsulinemia, Cushing’s disease (PPID), and Equine Metabolic Disease carry an increased risk of laminitis.

2. High fructan levels in the grass

Research shows that most cases of laminitis (61%!) occur in horses and ponies who are on pasture. The culprit: fructan, a kind of sugar found in grass. The leaves produce fructan under the influence of sunlight, and in an ideal situation they use it as a building material to grow.

However, fructan accumulates in the grass when sunlight creates a lot of it, but the grass cannot grow properly. This can be due to cold temperatures, for example, or a lack of water and nutrients.

This makes spring and autumn a dangerous time for your horse’s hooves: on sunny (spring) days the grass produces loads of fructan, but the cold nights mean it cannot be properly processed.

3. Too much sugar in concentrated feed

Concentrated feed is full of cereals—and these in turn abound with sugars. Hence, the concentrated feed is a risk factor for laminitis too. Just like a sudden change in diet, by the way.

4. Overweight

When your horse is overweight, he or she runs a higher risk to get laminitis. This is because the sugar and fat metabolism in the liver does not function as well in obese horses.

5. Overburdening

Overburdening occurs when your horse or pony relies excessively on one limb, as a result of an injury or lameness to the other. This can contribute to laminitis.

6. Toxic substances in the blood

This complication is common in horses or ponies with severe colic or a retained placenta. The intestinal wall then becomes more permeable, allowing toxins from intestinal bacteria to enter the bloodstream. These same toxins then end up in the blood vessels of the hooves, where they can cause laminitis.

7. Certain medication

Certain types of medication, such as long-acting corticosteroids, can also contribute to laminitis.

If you do have to resort to a cure because you could not prevent laminitis, you should recognize the symptoms.

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