Horses love sweet feed and lush, green grass, but equine veterinarians at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine warn that overindulgence of either can be a primary cause of a serious hoof disease known as laminitis.
Laminitis is a disease that affects the feet of hoofed animals, mostly horses and cattle, and can be life threatening if untreated, says Dr. Debra Taylor, an associate professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences and an equine podiatry veterinarian.
“It is a catastrophic disease that causes loss of use, severe pain as well as loss of life to a lot of horses,” Dr. Taylor said. “It is also an age-old struggle for horse owners, farriers and veterinarians—prevention is the key, through client education, animal diet and exercise.”
Clinical signs include hoof pain and increased digital pulses progressing to inability to walk. Severe cases with outwardly visible clinical signs are known by the colloquial term “founder,” and progression of the disease may lead to perforation of the coffin bone through the sole of the hoof or extreme pain, requiring euthanasia.
As a part of the Ambulatory Service at the college’s J.T. Vaughan Large Animal Teaching Hospital, Dr. Taylor and her team operate a mobile equine podiatry unit that takes veterinary medical treatment and educational outreach to the horse and its owner daily. It is necessary to go to the horse, Dr. Taylor says, because when the horse has sore feet, or cannot walk due to the severity of the condition, trailering the horse into the clinic for treatment could cause more damage to the feet.
The most common type of laminitis is Equine Metabolic Syndrome, which is associated with a genetic predisposition of weight gain. This form of laminitis is exacerbated by over consumption of sugars and starches from grains and grass in the horse’s diet, according to Dr. Taylor.
“It drives up the insulin level,” Dr. Taylor said. “High levels of insulin, due to high nonstructural carbohydrate intake, causes the pathophysiology of the foot falling apart. The structure of the dermal tissue that holds the bone up inside the hoof capsule is changed and the hoof becomes elongated and deformed long before there is ever pain,” she said.
“Long before the foot hurts, there is trouble that the horse owner and the farrier might not recognize unless they pay close attention to changes in hoof shape.”
Signs to look for:
- Sore hooves;
- White line disease;
- Long toes or flared hoof walls;
- Flat soles;
- Laying down more than usual or excessively; and in particular
“Don’t just look for an enlarged belly,” Dr. Taylor said. “Signs for weight gain in a horse are increased size along the top of the neck [crest formation], over the ribs, behind the shoulder and the rump area. The farrier should also be observant of changes in the horse’s hoof while shoeing. If a horse’s shoe size increases with each shoeing, laminitis very well might be the cause.”
Dr. Enrico Tegazzin, a veterinary and podiatry intern on Dr. Taylor’s team, has worked in Dubai and had his own equine ambulatory practice in Italy before coming to Auburn for an internship. It has become his passion to spread the word to horse owners and farriers about the importance of strategic hoof care.
“Hoof care is important in the treatment and prevention of laminitis,” Dr. Tegazzin said. “The shoe is connected to the hoof wall, but the wall connection to the bone is weak when the horse is suffering from laminitis. When this occurs, the hoof size expands.
“The farrier should be attentive to any changes in the horses hoof/shoe size and these changes could be signs of serious conditions and indicate situations where the horse owner should be notified that dietary changes might be warranted, or even, that a veterinarian should be consulted.”
Auburn’s equine podiatry team has been working with one horse, its owner and its primary veterinarian in Columbus, Georgia, to treat a particularly severe case of laminitis since 2015, with great success.
“Treatment of laminitis is not something that can be accomplished with one or a few visits to the vet,” Dr. Taylor said. “Treatment can require six to nine months, depending on the severity of the case.”
Spruceton Valley, 15-year-old thoroughbred owned by Barbara Larkin of Columbus, is one of those severe cases.
Radiographs taken when the horse came to Auburn’s College of Veterinary Medicine in spring 2015 showed significant bone rotation within the hoof. The horse was over conditioned, and the hoof distortion had most likely been developing for a long length of time before the mare became painful, according to Dr. Taylor.
“This was a case that prompted us to give the horse a guarded prognosis,” Dr. Taylor said, “But we put her in a treatment and rehabilitation program. Eventually we got her in good enough shape to go home, but field treatment continued, working with horse’s primary veterinarian.”
Dr. Taylor adds that there have been some setbacks during the process, and recommends the need for a consistent team effort to maintain forward progress in the treatment program and to recognize when subtle changes are occurring that negatively impact the long-term progress.
“The goal is for the horse to be pain free,” Dr. Taylor said. “Once a horse gets laminitis, most believe the horse will always have the condition, but that is not necessarily true. Some horses can make a complete recovery. Complete communication between the veterinarians, owner and farrier is necessary for the best outcome.”
Dr. Taylor says that as many as 50 percent of horse owners may have a stabled animal that has obesity and hoof distortion, which increases its risk of laminitis.
“It is a very common disease, but it is also very preventable and can be treatable if not detected too late,” Dr. Taylor said. “The key points are to learn to recognize signs that can prevent laminitis—weight control and hoof distortion cannot be ignored.”
Mitch Emmons is an employee of Auburn University.