A study conducted by the Animal Health Trust in collaboration with the Royal Veterinary College and Rossdales Equine Hospital, and funded by World Horse Welfare, has identified that one in every 10 horses or ponies may develop at least one laminitis episode each year, making it just as common as colic.
This newly published research has emphasised that laminitis needs to be considered an important year-round equine welfare concern in Great Britain. Despite the long-standing belief that laminitis is a spring-time disease, this study has identified that there is no ‘safe’ season, and laminitis remains a threat across England, Scotland and Wales regardless of the time of year. Owners must remain vigilant and not reduce preventive measures when they misconceive the ‘high-risk’ period has passed.
The study has also alerted horse and pony owners to the importance of recognising subtle signs of potentially life-threatening episodes. Most laminitic animals were reported by their owners to display non-specific and mild clinical signs, including difficulty in turning and a short/stilted gait (also referred to as ‘pottery’ gait) or lameness at walk – present in over 70% of laminitis episodes. However, less than a quarter of affected animals displayed the more classically recognised signs, such as the typical ‘rocked back on the heels’ laminitic stance and divergent hoof rings (rings that are wider at the heel than at the toe). A considerable proportion of horse/pony owners did not assess the presence of a bounding digital pulse, a commonly reported clinical sign of laminitis by vets. This suggests that owners may benefit from additional help with correctly locating and assessing their animal’s digital pulse, which could contribute to earlier detection of laminitis episodes in the future.
Of concern was the finding that only half of the 123 owner-reported laminitis episodes were confirmed by a veterinary diagnosis. Therefore, despite laminitis being considered a medical emergency by vets and expert researchers, many animals with laminitis are not receiving initial veterinary attention. Owners should therefore be encouraged to consult their vets if they suspect laminitis, or if they notice any of the subtle clinical signs associated with the disease, as by the time even subtle clinical signs arise, the damage within the foot has already begun. Early diagnosis and appropriate management is crucial in preventing long-term, often irreversible damage to structures within the laminitis-affected foot.
Dr Danica Pollard, Postdoctoral Research Scientist, Epidemiology and Disease Surveillance comments: Our findings indicate that laminitis is more common than we initially thought and occurs at similar rates to other high welfare health concerns, such as colic. Horse and pony owners should remain vigilant at all times of the year and be particularly aware of the perhaps more subtle, but as evidence indicates also more common, clinical signs of laminitis which are a better representation of the majority of laminitis episodes.”
With ongoing support from the Margaret Giffen Charitable Trust and World Horse Welfare the next step in the laminitis research in 2019 is to identify which management and health factors were collectively associated with laminitis development within this population of animals. The results should be available later in 2019.