Laminitis—the inflammation of the sensitive laminae inside the hoof wall—is a frightening disorder. Excruciatingly painful, laminitis can weaken the laminae and allow the coffin bone inside the hoof to sink and/or rotate downward, causing permanent deformity. In severe cases, euthanasia may be the only humane option, and survivors may never be sound again.
Any horse can develop acute laminitis, caused by an overload of carbohydrates, severe gastrointestinal illness or mechanical stresses. More common, however, is the chronic form, a milder condition triggered by hormonal imbalances associated with equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, also called Cushing’s disease) or other disorders.
The earliest signs of laminitis may be alarmingly obvious or they may be subtle—but once you spot them, you need to act immediately. Here’s what to do
When you see these signs:
Your horse seems “ouchy” and reluctant to move. As laminitis worsens, the pain may cause him to shift his weight back and forth between his front feet, or he may assume the “founder position”—leaning back on his haunches with his forefeet stretched forward.
He may lie down and be reluctant to rise.
He may show signs of pain, including sweating, fever and shallow breathing.
One or more of his hooves may feel warm to the touch.
You may feel a “bounding” pulse on the back of the pastern, either just above or just below the ankle. (In a healthy horse, this pulse can be difficult to pinpoint; ask your veterinarian to show you how to find it so you’ll know what to do in an emergency.)
First: Call the veterinarian; say you have an emergency and explain the situation.
Second: Put the horse’s feet in ice. Icing the feet is the one treatment that has been proven to halt the progress of laminitis under laboratory conditions. The earlier, the better. When researchers in Australia starting icing a horse’s feet immediately after administering oligofructose to induce the disease, they were able to prevent laminitis from developing. Icing may be useful if a horse has broken into a grain bin and you strongly suspect laminitis may follow. And this therapy can also greatly reduce the severity of the disease even if the treatment does not start until after signs of foot pain appear.
Stand the horse in a tub with cold water and ice deep enough to submerge the leg up to the middle of the cannon bone, and replenish the ice as needed until the veterinarian arrives.
Next: Take the horse’s temperature. Laminitis may accompany other illnesses. Of course, you’d probably already know if your horse were seriously ill, but an elevated temper-ature might indicate underlying problems you hadn’t noticed. Report your findings to your veterinarian.
When he arrives, the veterinarian will offer guidance based on your horse’s condition and circumstances. As you wait, you may want to enlist a friend who can lend a hand and help gather any supplies your veterinarian might need.
In the meantime
Locate an area with soft footing. As your horse begins recovery from laminitis, you will want to provide him with a stall with very deep bedding (at least eight inches) or a small pen with deep, soft footing, such as sand. The soft material will pack up inside the hoof, supporting the coffin bone, which may prevent or reduce rotation while also easing the horse’s pain.
What not to do
Do not walk a horse you suspect has laminitis. Each step he takes increases the stresses on the already-strained laminae. Instead, keep him as still as possible. Ideally, you’d leave the horse exactly where you found him until the veterinarian arrives. If he must be moved, choose the shortest route available, preferably over softer ground. To move him over a longer distance, try bringing a trailer out to where he is and letting him ride in to the barn. If he wants to lie down, let him.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #451, April 2015.