Understanding laminitis in horses & ponies

March 17, 2022

Veterinary Surgeon Holly Gimmler has written this short article looking into the causes, diagnosis and treatment of laminitis as well as the implications for ongoing management once a horse has suffered from this common condition.

What is laminitis?

Lamellae are the soft tissue structures that hold the pedal bone in the foot to the hoof wall. Laminitis occurs when these tissue structures become inflamed. It’s a common and painful condition which often results in lameness. Laminitis normally affects both front feet, but it can affect all feet.

What causes laminitis?

Although often considered a disease of overweight ponies, laminitis can be triggered by a variety of metabolic or physical causes in any horse, including:

  • Endocrine disease e.g., Equine Cushing’s (pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction; PPID) and equine metabolic syndrome (EMS)
  • Diseases causing inflammation, such as colitis
  • Mechanical overload such as supporting limb laminitis
  • Concussive laminitis from trauma to the feet

There are many predisposing factors, including obesity and seasonality. Spring and Autumn are the times of highest risk for laminitis as the sugar content in grass peaks. However, laminitis can present itself at any time of the year.

How do I know if my horse or pony has laminitis?

Common clinical signs include:

  • Lameness
  • Reluctance to move, or short pottery steps
  • Preferring soft surfaces to hard or stony surfaces
  • Difficulty turning in tight circles
  • Unwilling to pick up feet
  • A “rocking” stance, or weight shifting backwards or between feet

If your horse or pony exhibits any of these signs, it is important to call a vet.

Your vet will examine the patient to rule out other causes of lameness, or other conditions that can present similarly (colic, foot abscess, tying up). Your vet may also identify strong and bounding digital pulses, sensitivity on application of hoof testers and an elevated heart rate or sweating and distress.

Treatment in the first instance

  • Box rest on deep shavings as this helps to pack the foot, providing support
  • Pain relief, as prescribed by your vet. The first line option is often phenylbutazone (bute), sometimes in conjunction with paracetamol
  • Your vet may recommend taking a blood sample to diagnose underlying diseases which can then be addressed or managed
  • In severe cases there can be sinking or rotation of the pedal bone. Your vet may take x-rays of the feet to assess the severity of this
  • Sadly, in severe cases where the pain cannot be controlled, euthanasia is recommended to relieve the horse of suffering

Ongoing management of laminitis

Unfortunately, once a horse has had laminitis it is more likely to suffer in the future. Good ongoing management therefore becomes very important.

  • Dietary restriction. Aim for 1.5% bodyweight hay per day, ideally soaked. Hay need only be soaked long enough to leach out the soluble carbohydrates (sugars), so 30-45minutes at most. Avoid concentrates as these are rich in carbohydrate. Strip grazing or grazing muzzles should be considered for particularly good do-ers during high-risk periods
  • Arrange a farrier visit to help address discomfort and stabilise the feet; there are specific shoes that may be recommended to provide support
  • Schedule frequent reassessments with your vet to monitor your horse or pony’s comfort and progress

Holly Gimmler BVSc MRCVS

Holly joined our equine veterinary team in July 2021 having just graduated from the University of Liverpool. During her studies she gained valuable experience treating equine emergencies and caring for inpatients under the guidance of top specialists at the Philip Leverhulme Equine Hospital. She enjoys all aspects of equine veterinary work and has gained particular interests in anaesthesia, medicine and reproduction.


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