Laminitis: Horse Disease

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Imagine having all of your fingernails and toenails peeled off simultaneously and you can appreciate the degree of pain involved in laminitis. Because it is so painful and debilitating, many horses with this disease have to be destroyed.

On that May afternoon at Churchill Downs, as the thoroughbreds began to spread out along the rail, Foolish Pleasure and Avatar moved to the front of the pack, throwing clods of dirt into the faces of the trailing horses and jockeys. They passed the half-mile mark three lengths ahead of the nearest home.

Risk Factors for Laminitis

Numerous causes of laminitis have been identified. The most common is the over consumption of carbohydrate-rich grain or lush pasture, which causes changes in the microbial climate of the intestines, leading to the release of bacterial toxins into the bloodstream. These toxins disrupt normal blood flow to the hoof, causing laminitis.

Other triggers of laminitis are not as well understood, though all are known to cause similar changes in blood flow to the feet. Over consumption of cold water, excessive concussion of the hooves on hard surfaces and ingestion of black walnut shavings or beet tops are all potential culprits. Any disease that causes the release of bacteria into the bloodstream, such as colic or uterine infection, also can lead to laminitis. Sadly, the underlying cause is sometimes never identified.

Rounding the far turn, Foolish Pleasure pulled a nose ahead of Avatar. The crowd thundered its approval and dismay. The jockeys frantically urged both homes to go all out.

Recognizing Laminitis

Though cases range from mild to severe, the general signs of laminitis are usually unmistakable. The horse will stand in a "sawhorse" stance, with all four legs angled out from the normal position. The animal may shift its weight constantly from leg to leg. In severe cases, a horse will simply lay on its side to get its weight off of its feet. Untreated horses will stop eating and lose weight.

A throbbing, pounding pulse can be detected in the arteries leading to the hooves. The vessels running to the hooves are paired, one toward the inside and one toward the outside of each foot; you can easily feel the pulse by placing your index finger on the back of the leg, just above the top of the hoof. If a horse is in pain, its pulse will often increase to greater than 50 beats per minute.

Also in a horse with laminitis you will occasionally feel heat at the top of the hoof in an area known as the coronary band. When hoof testers (instruments resembling ice tongs) are placed on the hoof, there is a consistent pain response everywhere on the sole. In addition, you will sometimes see a separation of the inside of the hoof from the sole of the foot, a condition commonly known as "seedy toe."

X-rays of the foot may show rotation of the last toe bone. If the bone is rotated more than ten degrees, the prognosis is usually considered hopeless.

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