Tuesday, July 8, 2008

What is laminitis?

Many books & websites make laminitis and founder very confusing. I'll do my best to relay what I know as simple as possible because I know the frustration of trying to find accurate information. Out of all the texts I've read on laminitis, I don't think I've found two vet manuals that say the same thing! Every one contradicts the other ones. I can only pass on what I've seen work and what I believe works.

The greatest information I have learned has come from books on natural hoof care and being around a few foundered horses myself. Laminitis is a complicated issue and I'm not going to try to make it sound like I have all the answers. I don't. I know some basics about what causes it, what the signs are, how to treat it and how to try to prevent it. (If more information is gathered, I will modify this post, so check back occassionally).

In very simple terms, laminitis is inflammation of the laminae. Laminae are thin layers of tissue within the hoof wall. These thin layers of laminae contain a lot of vessels and tiny capillaries that carry blood into the hoof. Different layers of laminae have different purposes but one of the main functions is that these layers are what attach the hoof to the bone. When this laminae gets inflamed, just the weight of the horse on the hooves or walking can damage or tear the laminae, which can cause all kinds of horrible things. I'm not trying to scare you, I'm just stating fact.

If a horse founders, they can suffer all kinds of pain and damage to the hoof from very mild to very severe. In mild cases, the horse may have hoof related problems that seem to be a total mystery. They may be able to be ridden but never fully sound. In acute or severe cases, the hoof can grow into grotesque deformities, the hoof wall can pull away from and separate from the coffin bone, the hoof can rotate and the coffin bone can puncture through the bottom of the hoof, the hoof can separate from the coronary band and in severe cases, the hoof can actually come off. (!) In between "mild" and "severe" are all levels of damage, none of which are good. Of course you want your horse to be sound and healthy so please take founder and laminitis seriously.

Laminitis can be brought on by many things but the most common cause is eating too many carbohydrates, (basically meaning too much sugar), which can come from:
  1. Too much sugar in whatever you're feeding,
  2. Too much of the too-sweet-feed eaten all at one time (gorging), or
  3. There being too much sugar in the grass they're eating.
Okay, brace yourself because I'm probably going to insult you. (Someone who works for a feed manufacturer will probably have their very own Melanie voodoo doll that they regularly throw against the wall or run over with their car but Hey! this is important enough that I feel like I have to say it anyway) Are you ready? Here goes: Please don't give your horses sweet feed! Ok. Go ahead. Get mad. I did when I first found out that sweet feed was bad for horses. I had always fed sweet feed. I loved the way it looked when I opened a new bag. I loved the way it felt when I ran my hands through it. I loved the way it smelled. I liked giving it to horses because everything about it looked and smelled delicious! and the horse was going to love it and love me for giving it to them. The horses did love it! Well of course they did! It was loaded with molasses! Now, come back down to earth with me. Just because they love it doesn't mean it's good for them. Think about this: If given a choice, how many kids would choose a bowl of unsweetened oatmeal over a bowl of Cocoa Puffs? Or a bowl of crumbled up cookies and milk? Right! None! It's the same thing with horses. Their natural diet does not include sugar, but just like humans, they develop a "sweet tooth" and a taste for sugar. You can't blame them for that...we do it to ourselves and we do it to them.

Once you have time to think it over, please consider switching your horses from sweet feed to a more natural feed that contains no added sugar. I first read about this in Pete Ramey's book, "Making Natural Hoof Care Work For You." Then I saw (with my own eyes), over 25 horses switched from eating sweet feed every day (for years) to eating plain, whole oats. At first, the horses weren't sure about it but trust me...in a very short time, they were very happily and quickly munching on those oats just as readily as they did the sweet feed and raising their heads with ears perked, begging for more! What's much more important however, is that in a matter of a few months, I saw physical improvements, (in coat, skin, body composition and hooves), in every single horse!

While on the subject of too much sugar, it's important to know that a horse doesn't need to steal his barn buddies food or break into your grain storage area in order to overeat carbohydrates, although that certainly happens quite often. A horse can founder on too much alfalfa hay and can (easily) founder from grazing in a pasture of any lush green grass, especially clover and/or alfalfa and especially in the springtime. In fact, the majority of founder cases occur in the spring. New grass in the spring contains a lot more sugar than it does during the rest of the year and when the grass is wet and covered with frost in the mornings, the danger of founder is much higher.

In the wild, horses move about 20 miles a day and graze continually on what is usually sparse, dry grasses. This is what is normal and healthiest for them. So, if you have lush green pastures, what do you do?
  1. Limit the time your horse can graze on green pastures to a few hours a day. (Don't confine them to a stall! A dirt (or mostly dirt) paddock or corral with some quality grass hay is much better. A horse must move in order to have healthy feet. More on that will be covered in a future post)
  2. If you absolutely cannot limit their grazing time in green pastures, consider buying a grazing muzzle, one that will breakaway if they get it caught in a hoof, fence post or tree branch, etc.
  3. In the spring, don't turn your horses out to the pastures until mid or late morning, after the sun has burned off the frost.
Regardless of what the "experts" disagree on, most agree on this one bottom line: sugar is poisonous to a horses' system. The closer you can get your horses diet and environment back to the natural model, the sounder, healither and happier your horse will be.

Now, this doesn't mean that you absolutely cannot give your horse any sweet treats. You can. Give treats in moderation and use common sense. Give carrots instead of sugar cubes. Try some fresh fruit instead of peppermints. Experiment. Think about it. Just like you and I know that we should eat more fruit and not chocolate bars every single day, it's the same with our horses. Just like we try to give our kids healthy food, let's control what our horses eat and do what's best for them. I think you will be extremely pleased with the positive change in your horse and you will be reducing their risk of founder and laminitis tremendously!

Other causes of founder/laminitis include running a horse on paved or gravel roads, (called road founder), an extremely hot horse being allowed to drink a lot of cold water, various types of infections that go untreated and mares that don't expel all of the placenta when giving birth, which results in toxins going into the bloodstream.

Since the majority of founder cases are a result of what the horse eats, you may ask, how does something that goes into a horses' stomach affect their feet? Good question! Most of what I've studied pretty much agree on the overload of carbohydrates, creating an imbalance of the good and bad bacteria in the stomach and intestines, which creates an overload of lactic acid and toxins and then those toxins go into the bloodstream, where they create all sorts of havoc. I've seen texts that state that there is too much blood pumped into the laminae and some say that too little blood is pumped into the laminae. I tend to believe the latter.

Here's one thing for sure: one of the first signs that a horse is foundering will be increased blood flow into the hoof itself. You can tell if this is happening by wrapping or pressing your fingers into the digital artery that goes down the back of the fetlock. In a resting horse (one that has not been recently exercised), you should not be able to feel a pulse in that artery. If you feel a thumping pulse at the back of the fetlock, what you are feeling is a lot of blood pounding into the hoof. I believe that the blood is flowing so hard and fast that it fills the arteries but bypasses the tiny capillaries that feed blood into the laminae, which are then starved of blood and oxygen. Since the hooves are flooded with blood, they get hot and eventually very painful. This is inflammation.

Other signs of founder include:
  1. A sure sign is the typical "founder stance". Founder/laminitis normally occurs in the front feet but can affect the hind feet as well. In an effort to get the pressure off of the front feet, the horse will stand in an awkward position that looks something like they're squatting or stretching. The front feet are normally further out in front of the horse than usual. They lean back and sometimes the toes of the front feet may be slightly off the ground. They're basically trying to put their weight on the back feet because the front feet are so very painful
  2. The horse continually shifts their weight from one foot to another or lifts one foot after another, trying to escape the pain.
  3. In more severe cases, the horse may breathe heavily, have a rapid pulse, sweat, and/or have a fever and chills and may even lie down, however,
  4. I've seen horses founder that had no symptoms other than a barely detectable founder stance and they walk very slowly and gingerly, as if tiptoeing. I've seen them founder and still perform their duties almost as if they are just used to always dealing with some measure of pain and they work through it. If they do this, it will surely get worse and not better if their diet and environment doesn't change and they don't get medical attention.
If you think your horse is foundering,
  1. Get it out of the grass pasture,
  2. Allow no grain feed,
  3. Have plenty of fresh water available
  4. Call the vet immediately!
If caught soon enough, the vet can do several things that can help lower the chance of acute founder and hoof damage. The vet may administer a laxative to get the grain to rapidly pass through and/or administer some medications.

Once the initial attack is over:
  1. Put the horse in a dirt paddock or corral with a friend (not a stall because movement is crucial to healing)
  2. Provide plenty of fresh water
  3. Allow only grass hay
  4. Call your farrier
From this point on, what you can do is change the horses' diet and environment. What your farrier can do are natural trimming methods that can completely and totally rehabilitate your horse, which should include light (natural) trims every 2 or 3 weeks. I cannot stress enough how firmly I believe in natural hoof care. Read the book "Founder" by Jaime Jackson, or "Making Natural Hoof Care Work For You" by Pete Ramey. It will totally transform the way you care for your horse and you will never look at or treat hooves the same way again.

Visit some natural hoof care websites such as http://www.hoofrehab.com/ or the website of the American Association of Natural Hoof Care Practitioners (AANHCP) at http://www.aanhcp.org/
and find yourself a good farrier who is trained in natural hoof care practices. I believe with all of my heart that your horses' health and well being relies on it.

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Please feel free to email me your horse questions and I'll do my best to answer them or at least point you to someone or someplace that can. (Scroll down to the "About Me" section and click on "View my complete profile" to send me an email) I look forward to hearing from you! ~Melanie