Laminitis More Common Than Previously Thought
By Mark Andrews
Recent research suggests that laminitis is as common as colic. The study, led by Dr. Danica Pollard, a Ph.D. student at the Royal Veterinary College, found that one in ten horses or ponies may develop at least one laminitis episode each year.
The research was conducted at the Animal Health Trust, in collaboration with Rossdales Equine Hospital, and funded by World Horse Welfare.
Laminitis is a debilitating and extremely painful condition in horses and ponies with significant welfare implications. It often recurs in individual animals and around 15 percent of equine deaths in the UK are linked to laminitis.
The study followed 1,070 horses and ponies in Great Britain and monitored regular updates on their management and health over 29 months. Laminitis was reported 123 times in 97 animals.
Despite a long-standing belief that laminitis is a springtime disease, this study identified that there is no “safe” season. Laminitis remains a threat regardless of the time of year. The research, published in Equine Veterinary Journal, has emphasized that laminitis needs to be considered an important year-round equine welfare concern.
“Our findings indicate that laminitis is more common than we initially thought and occurs at similar rates to other high welfare health concerns, such as colic,” says Pollard. Owners must remain vigilant and not reduce preventive measures when they mistakenly believe that the “high risk” period is over.
She adds: “We also need to stress that laminitis is not just a spring-time disease and it’s essential horse and pony owners remain proactive about its prevention at all times of the year.”
The study highlights the importance of recognizing subtle signs of potentially life-threatening episodes. Most laminitic animals were reported by their owners to display non-specific and mild clinical signs, including difficulty in turning and a short/stilted gait (also referred to as “pottery” gait) or lameness at walk - present in over 70 percent of laminitis episodes.
However, less than a quarter of affected animals displayed the more classically recognized signs, such as the typical “rocked back on the heels” laminitic stance and divergent hoof rings (rings that are wider at the heel than at the toe).
Furthermore, a considerable proportion of horse and pony owners did not assess the presence of a bounding digital pulse, a commonly reported clinical sign of laminitis by vets. This suggests that owners may benefit from additional help with correctly locating and assessing their animal’s digital pulse, which could contribute to earlier detection of laminitis episodes in the future.
Only half of the 123 owner-reported laminitis episodes were confirmed by a veterinary diagnosis. Therefore, despite laminitis being considered a medical emergency by vets and expert researchers, many animals with laminitis are not receiving initial veterinary attention.
Owners are encouraged to consult their vets if they suspect laminitis, or if they notice any of the subtle clinical signs associated with the disease, as by the time even subtle clinical signs arise, the damage within the foot has already begun. Early diagnosis and appropriate management is crucial in preventing long-term, often irreversible damage to structures within the laminitis-affected foot.
“The earlier an episode is recognized, the earlier action can be taken to give that animal the best chance of recovery,” Pollard says. “We also encourage owners to consult their vets if they suspect laminitis and to work together with their vets and farriers as part of a ‘laminitis recovery’ team.”
Further work, supported by the Margaret Giffen Charitable Trust and World Horse Welfare, is underway to identify which management and health factors were collectively associated with the development of laminitis in this population of animals.
Printed with permission of Mark Andrews, Equine Science Update.