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Laminitis risks in the rain

A spell of wet weather can provide welcome relief after weeks of baking temperatures and rock-hard ground but with it comes an increased risk of laminitis.

Don’t be lulled into thinking laminitis is mainly an issue connected with the lush, green days of spring and early summer. In fact the levels of natural sugar in grass, which can trigger laminitis, can actually increase in times of extreme stress in pasture, such as a drought or when there is a frost in the ground. Lush, new grass is always very risky and, as horse owners, we should always be vigilant.

A flush of new growth brought on by the return of rain should ring alarm bells in the minds of horse owners. Overweight horses, those with conditions such as Cushings or those that have previously had laminitis are particularly at risk.

‘I see all types of horses and ponies as a veterinary surgeon and laminitis remains one of the biggest welfare concerns,’ says equine vet Lucinda Ticehurst. ‘When there has been recent rainfall there are dramatically more cases. A sudden increase in the quantity and quality of grass can have very detrimental effects. There is no ultimate cure for laminitis: it becomes an ongoing management issue, so prevention is best.’

Lush, new grass always poses a laminitis risk

Restricting grazing hours or using a muzzle can help protect at-risk animals by limiting the amount of fresh grass your horse can consume. ‘Horses can binge eat the equivalent to a 24-hour ration in four hours with sufficient available forage,’ reveals Lucinda.

‘Consider a track system around your horse's field where your horse has space to move forward while the centre of the paddock is fenced off. This maximizes footfall but minimizes access to fresh grass,’ she suggests. ‘Nutritional management needs to be considered alongside addressing the many potential predisposing factors of laminitis.’

Keeping horses fit should be made a little easier once rain has introduced some give to hard ground, and regular exercise can also help stave off laminitis by maintaining a healthy body condition score. Softer ground also reduces the risk of foot concussion, which is another risk factor for laminitis. However, a pony or horse with active laminitis should not be exercised but strictly rested on a deep soft surface. 

‘Laminitis is a symptom of many syndromes. It is important to make sure your horse is as safe as possible when fresh grass is available and there is a sudden change in nutritional content of the forage available to your horse,’ says Lucinda. ‘Obesity and equine metabolic syndrome should never be underestimated alongside increased direct nutrition.’

Whether or not you think you horse is particularly vulnerable, it is important to be aware of the signs of laminitis.

These include:

  • Excessive heat of the hoof or hooves and a strong digital pulse indicating increased blood flow to a problem in the foot.
  • Lameness ranging from reluctance to move and a pottery walk to pain when turning and in trot. In extreme cases your horse or pony may be unable to stand.
  • Signs of pain, such as grumpiness and a lack of interest in surroundings and poor performance.
  • Alternating the weight between feet to relieve discomfort.

It is important to act quickly if you suspect your horse may have laminitis and seek veterinary advice. Laminitis is an inflammation and weakening of the soft tissue laminae that join the pedal bone within the hoof capsule to the hoof wall.

Prompt treatment can limit the damage done but acute and chronic cases can result in the pedal bone rotating within the hoof causing pain, lameness and can result in horses having to be euthanized due to compromised welfare.

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