Laminitis Solutions 08/09/2015

Equine Laminitis Solutions – Click here for information about the difference between laminitis and founder.

There are several potential causes of laminitis:

  • Any major infection such as a retained placenta
  • Some medications
  • Any injury which causes constant weight-bearing on the other ‘good’ limb
  • Standing on poisonous substances
  • Gorging on grain from the feed bin
  • Fructans in cool season grasses like rye-grass

The sort of laminitis we are talking about here is that which is most common, especially in spring and autumn, and is caused by the mineral imbalances inherent in the grass the horse is consuming, referred to here as ‘Grass-Induced laminitis’.

Sugars and Mineral Imbalances

If we confine our thinking to the sugar content of the forage alone as a cause of metabolic syndrome and laminitis then there is no explanation for why horses (& ponies) on very well managed, low carbohydrate diets still get laminitis. On inspection of their living area the short, green grass is visible.

Nibbling around on these tips of fresh spring or autumn growth or the tips of any grass after rain will bring on an attack of laminitis in susceptible animals.

If they do not have access to any green grass at all they do not get the bouts of laminitis from this particular cause.

Click here to read more about Metabolic Syndrome and what you can do about it.

Preventing laminitis is well recognised to be a case of good diet and plenty of exercise. Whilst exercise alone will not prevent laminitis happening to susceptible horses and ponies eating the ‘wrong grass’, the right diet and pasture management will, without any exercise. Of course it is ‘ideal’ that they have both a good diet and plenty of exercise.

After the horse has recovered, access to grass needs to be for limited periods of the day on the most mature grass possible. People say ‘he’s only allowed on grass for a few hours a day’ but they are not aware their horse can eat a colossal amount of grass in an hour, let alone 3-4 hours or a whole day!
Diligence is needed to avoid them eating grass that is stressed or at the wrong stage of growth. Their staple diet needs to consist of suitable meadow hay, not fresh, green hay and definitely no clover or lucerne*.

*Lucerne is often advocated as a suitable feed for laminitic horses and ponies on the basis that it has a lower NCS content. However because it is a very high potassium/low sodium forage it is totally unsuitable. 

Longer grass is safer from the point of view of mineral balances but becomes higher in sugars as it grows, especially the cool season grasses like rye-grass. It is still not possible to leave horses out 24/7 on this longer grass because they will eat far too much of it. Especially if it is sweet they will literally gorge themselves on it. They will ingest too much potassium, sugars and protein.

Horses are designed to extract a little bit of nutrition out of a constant trickle of low quality feed which over 18-20 hours a day add up to a large quantity. Modern, so-called ‘improved’ pastures and most hard-feeds do exactly the opposite, they supply a lot of nutrition in a small quantity of feed. This does not suit horses who are supposed to nibble and chew all day.

The feeding of a daily feed that includes minerals essential for the prevention of metabolic disorders will give you more insurance against any relapses.

When conditions are not optimal for growth, cool season grasses store their sugars as indigestible ‘fructans’ (which are chains of sugar molecules joined together). No mammals have the enzymes to break down and utilise fructans.

Fructans which are consumed and eventually do arrive in the hind-gut of the horse or pony can only be fermented by the Streptococcus bacteria. This bacteria, normally only present in small numbers now have the opportunity for a feast enabling a population explosion, thereby disturbing the balance of the healthy gut flora. This starts a cascade of problems which can precede a bout of laminitis (Dr Chris Pollitt).

The ‘fructans’ factor is just one of the many reasons that rye-grass is completely unsuitable as forage for horses and ponies.

What is it about the grass?

In spring and autumn, grass undergoes rapid growth spurts for which it requires potassium and nitrogen. Under conditions right for growth the grass tips rapidly become high in potassium but not correspondingly high in sodium. This floods the horses system with potassium upsetting the delicate sodium:potassium ratio which the body tries so hard to maintain.

Grass in spring and autumn also becomes high in nitrates (protein precursor). Excess nitrates are attached to calcium and magnesium and excreted via the gut and the urine, rapidly depleting the horse of these other vital electrolytes.

This serious electrolyte imbalance (that of excess potassium relative to sodium, chloride, calcium and magnesium) has multiple consequences, one of them being that of inflammation:

  • of the musculature as in Jane’s horse
  • of the trigeminal nerve as in head-flicking
  • of the laminae as in laminitis.

It is no coincidence that all of these scenarios are triggered seasonally under the same weather conditions. They all happen on the same day, so to speak.

Causes of Inflammation:

  • Toxins, allergies, autoimmune diseases, infections, acid-base disorders, injury, and free radical damage can trigger or cause inflammation.
  • Acid-base disorders are deviations from the normal body pH and these are caused by the electrolyte imbalances. For instance constant chloride depletion from high potassium/sodium chloride depleted diets can cause a rise in body pH (alkalosis) which leads to inflammation, instability of cell membranes and inappropriate firing of nerves

Looking Out for the First Signs

  • They become ‘tight’ all over and a ‘heave line’ up their belly becomes obvious.
  • They start walking ‘stiffly’ and/or slowly and then reluctantly
  • The crest hardens
  • Shifting their weight from foot to foot
  • Sweating
  • Raised digital pulse. If your horse is prone to laminitis then it is a good idea to learn how to take it
  • Rocking back on their heels

Feeding to Prevent Metabolic Syndrome and Laminitis

The quickest recovery from laminitis that I and others have observed is when all green is immediately and thoroughly removed from the diet. This includes the most microscopic green shoots coming thru the dirt. You can cover them up with sand or bark.
‘Restricting’ the grass, mowing, putting other stock thru first, none of these cut the mustard. The slightest green tinge can perpetuate this painful condition.
They need to go into some kind of a ‘dry lot’. This may be a large yard, round pen, arena, or a track.

When you take a horse or pony off the grass you must make sure they never run out of food by supplying adlib hay. This is where the Hay-Saver Nets become invaluable as they slow the eating process down and ensure there is a constant trickle of coarse, fibrous material going thru the digestive system, thereby keeping the horse contented and healthy.

The emphasis to date has always been to ‘cut down the sugars’, or the carbohydrate portion of the horse’s diet. This is still important but equally, if not more important, are the mineral balances. Nutrition for these horses and ponies should include a daily feed such as soaked beet with linseed or Zeaola meal and oil for Omega 3’s, into which is mixed their salt and Premium NZ Horse Minerals. When they are introduced back onto suitable grass Graze Ezy should be also added to their feed.

Do I Need to Soak the Hay?

Soaking reduces the NSC (Non-structural carbohydrate, or sugar) content of the hay by 30% and the potassium content by 50% ( If your horse or pony is obese then soaking the hay will speed up weight loss. You will soon get into a routine especially if you locate your drum for soaking near the tap or hose.
Put the hay into your Hay-Saver first, then immerse the whole bag in the tub of water for at least an hour.
Some horses may object to the sugarless hay at first, just persevere. Some get where they actually prefer it.

Do not soak oaten or lucerne hay. There have been some very bad reactions apparently caused by the nitrogen component converting to ammonia.

Take Action to Prevent Grass Induced Laminitis

Laminitis can happen at any time of the year but more so in early spring and Autumn. When the autumn rains come, horses and ponies will get laminitis all over the place because their owners are unaware that the change in the grass which accompanies those autumn rains is dangerous to prone animals.
There are several different causes of laminitis but the most prevalent is that which is caused by the grass at these times. Wild horses in a desert environment, with little or no access to green grass do not get laminitis from this cause, whereas laminitis is very common in horses kept behind fences and forced to eat the regrowth. This is the real source of the trouble!

These same steps apply if your horse already has ‘sore feet’. If your horse has got to the stage where he is rocked back on his heels or lying down, then urgently call your vet for assessment and pain relief.

Remember that horses and ponies are ‘silent sufferers’. It is not uncommon for them to be seen out in the paddock, having hardly moved for several days, just shifting their weight from foot to foot or rocking back on their heels in the typical laminitis stance, sweating with the pain and the owner hasn’t even noticed that there is anything wrong!

Horses and ponies that are not necessarily obese but who show the signs of Insulin resistance are equally as prone to bouts of laminitis.

Signs that your horse is suffering from Mineral Imbalances and is prone to laminitis…

  • May or may not be obese. May or may not be an ‘easy keeper’
  • You can see evidence of abnormal fat deposits on the crest of the neck, behind the shoulders, on the tail-head and even on the sides of the rump
  • Puffy around the eyes and sheath
  • Bloodshot eyes

They can exhibit all the above signs for long periods and not develop laminitis.

The first sign of the following means it is really too late, a bout is happening and you need to take action urgently.

  • Will go ‘tight’ all over, quiver when touched and start walking ‘stiffly’
  • Shifting their weight from foot to foot, clearly in pain.
  • Elevated digital pulse
  • Reluctant to move at all
  • Rocking back on their heels
  • Lying down because they are too sore to stand

Natural Solutions

  1. Make some kind of a ‘dry lot’, a 100% grass free zone preferably with shade and shelter. This may be a large yard, a round pen a track or a long strip under the hedge or trees. It will provide a safe haven to keep your horse when the grass is unsuitable. You will need it to prevent relapses in future.
  2. Ensure there is a continuous supply of hay (no lucerne, no clover). Using a ‘slow feeder hay net’ will make sure your horse NEVER runs out of food, keeping him contented.
  3. If your horse is obese then soak the hay (in the Hay-Saver immersed in a drum of water) for at least an hour before feeding. This reduces the sugars by 30% and the potassium by 50%
  4. Feed a simple daily feed to ensure proper nutrition whilst on their strict diet. Wild horses get to nibble and browse on a variety of deep rooted plants and bushes which bring up minerals. A daily feed using soaked beet with Supreme Horse Vitamin and Minerals and add AlleviateC SOS or our Laminitis Prescription Pack and salt.
  5. Forcing laminitic horses to walk when they are in pain and when there is damage to the laminae will only do more damage and stress the horse. The best relief for them comes from standing in wet mud or on sand, mediums that will push up on the sole and support the bone column. Additional support can be provided if necessary
  6. Once they are more comfortable to walk you can start light exercise
    (hand walking)
  7. Whether and when to trim their hooves may be different in each case. If possible leave until the horse is more comfortable and can handle standing on the other leg whilst the trimming takes place. Also never ever put shoes on a horse with Laminitis!
  8. Be aware that once your horse has had laminitis they are very prone to further bouts. Nibbling around on short grass after rain will tip them over again very easily.
  9. Therefore access to grass that is as mature as possible for 10 minutes am and pm is a good way to introduce grass back into the diet. Avoid any short grass, ‘roadside’ type grass is far more suitable.
  10. Learn about pasture management for horses

Effect of different potassium levels in hay on acid-base status and mineral balance in periparturient dairy cows. Rérat M, Philipp A, Hess HD, Liesegang A.
‘Acid-base Physiology’ Kerry Brandis
‘Nitrate Toxicity and Sodium Deficiency Associated with Hypomagnesemia, Hypocalcemia and the Grass Tetany Syndrome in Herbivores’. T.W. Swerczek, DVM, PhD.

By Jenny Paterson B.Sc

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