How to Treat Laminitis in Horses

Laminitis is a very painful condition that horses can develop. It is a disease that can be potentially crippling and even be life-threatening in severe cases. To know how to treat laminitis in horses means understanding what it is and why it occurs.

For the hoof wall of the horse, there is a layer of outer insensitive tissues and a layer of inner tissues that are very sensitive. The outer layer is referred to as the “horn,” while the inner layer is called the “laminae.” When laminitis occurs, it affects how much blood flows to the sensitive inner tissues. This results in swelling and inflammation within the hoof of the horse.

This swelling also causes intense pain for the horse, which causes the animal to stop moving around.

As the condition continues, the inner tissues become starved of oxygen. This causes them to begin deteriorating and they will eventually die if oxygenated blood flow is not restored to the area. It requires immediate treatment to prevent cell death. You will typically find laminitis in the front feet, but it can occur in any hoof. 

If the laminitis is allowed to continue, it may cause the pedal pone to protrude from the sole of the foot. It will sing and then rotate because the inner tissues have died and cannot support it any more. Once this occurs, many cases of laminitis cannot be reversed.

All horses are at risk for developing laminitis.

What Are the Causes of Laminitis?

Laminitis can be caused by a number of different conditions and factors. Some horses may even be genetically predisposed to the development of this condition. The most common factor, however, is weight. Horses that are overweight have a higher risk for laminitis compared to horses of normal weight. A previous case of laminitis also increases the risk of this condition developing.

Here are some of the other causes of laminitis that may be worth examining so an effective treatment plan can be developed.

Stress: Horses that travel frequently or experience continual changes of environment experience stress triggers that may result in laminitis. Mares also experience stress triggers as a result of foaling.

Diet: Horses which have a diet full of starch and sugars cause a reduction of oxygen within the blood. This is due to excess sugars being passed through the gut. This oxygen reduction then causes laminitis to begin.

Infection: Horses that have a severe bacterial infection may see oxygen changes in their blood that can result in laminitis. This also applies to severe instances of colic, prolonged diarrhea, or placenta retention.

Concussion: Horses that are working on hard surfaces for a prolonged period of time can damage the hoof. This risk is increased if the horse has poor-quality hooves. The trauma creates cell damage and this results in a case of laminitis.

Genetics: A horse that has been diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease is at a higher risk of developing laminitis. This is because of a pituitary gland issue which causes extreme hunger and thirst in the horse.

What Are the Symptoms of Laminitis?

Laminitis symptoms are generally separated into acute cases and chronic cases of this condition.

In acute laminitis, the symptoms occur suddenly and can be very severe. The horse may have an immediate desire to lie down. There may also be a reluctance to walk or an unwillingness to stand up. The horse will be visibly lame, especially when walking on a hard surface, and may lean to one side in order to relieve pressure from the affected hoof.

Horses with acute laminitis will also walk more on their heels to prevent placing pressure on the affected tissues.

In chronic laminitis, less severe symptoms are usually present in comparable ways to acute laminitis. The symptoms will be ongoing and may come in “cycles” or “attacks” during a flare-up of tissue damage. You will notice that the affected hoof will have growth rings around the hoof wall and the heel tends to grow faster than the toe.

How to Effectively Treat Laminitis in Horses

If the symptoms of laminitis are seen, then it is necessary to call your veterinarian immediately. Your vet will create a treatment plan that must be followed exactly. A correct treatment must be given in order to prevent long-term damage to the inner tissues of the hoof.

Before the vet arrives, you can move the horse to a smaller stable, pen, or area. Provide a deep bed that is soft so that painful pressure is not applied to the sensitive tissues. You will want to use bedding that can form around the hoof and frog so that the horse has standing supports.

Feed should be removed, but water that is clean and fresh should always be provided to prevent colic from developing as well. After the examination, your veterinarian will recommend a specific diet to follow as part of the treatment plan.

Because stress is a major trigger for laminitis, especially after it begins, it becomes important to make the horse be as comfortable as possible. This includes making sure that a favorite companion is nearby.

Do not expose the hoof to cold water. The myth that cold water helps to treat laminitis is one that needs to be addressed. The cold water seems to work initially because it helps to reduce the swelling and inflammation that is within the hoof. This is why many owners will have their horse stand in a cold stream or use a cold-water hose to cover the hoof. The cold water also constricts blood vessels, preventing even more oxygen from reaching the sensitive inner tissues, so it will hasten cell death.

You may need to take your horse for x-rays to determine if any rotation has occurred. You may also need to bring in your farrier so that a rotation can be addressed, if possible, and to create the best possible conditions for a future recovery.

How to Prevent Laminitis in the First Place

One of the easiest ways to prevent laminitis is to promote a healthy weight for each horse. Monitor the diet of each horse carefully and feed according to breed, type, and workload. Feed little and often for best results. Never starve a horse.

Implementing a good exercise program will also help to prevent obesity if one is not in place already.

Horses also need regular attention from a farrier or a knowledgeable owner. A visit should occur every 4-8 weeks, depending on the breed of horse. This will make sure that each hoof is always as healthy as possible and will catch cases of laminitis early.

Knowing how to treat laminitis in horses can help you stop a disease that can be very painful and extremely debilitating. Prevention is always the best option, but if it does occur, make sure your veterinarian knows right away so that together you can stop this disease quickly.