Laminitis is an extremely painful condition which affects horses and other hoofed animals. The condition causes the lamellar tissues of the hoof to slowly die and disintegrate, causing the bones of the leg to rotate or sink through the hoof. The condition can be so painful that it requires euthanization, as it can be very difficult to treat. Veterinarians estimate that laminitis may be among the leading causes of death for horses, despite efforts to understand and combat the condition.
Before delving into the details of the condition, it may help to think about hoof anatomy. The hoof of an animal is attached to the body by the coffin bone, which is networked with the hoof through a series of small structures called laminae. In a healthy animal, the coffin bone is entirely covered in the hoof, with the weight of the animal distributed evenly across the laminae and the greater structure of the hoof. In a case of laminitis, these laminae start to disintegrate, meaning that the weight of the animal is not properly supported.
The condition is characterized by trembling, anxiety, sweating, and an increased pulse along the affected limb. Laminitis tends to strike the front hooves more often, since they bear a greater proportion of the animal's weight. The animal will also adopt a strange stance in an effort to reduce the pain of laminitis, and it may develop a mincing, hobbling walk. If the condition progresses, the bones of the ankle and hoof may sink through the hoof to the ground, in a condition known as founder. They may also twist or distort, causing extreme pain.
The condition appears to be caused through blood congestion and an accumulation of toxins in the hoof, and it is often associated with inflammation. The causes vary; high feeding of grain, systemic infection, excessive drinking of cold water, and exercise on hard surfaces appear to be be related to laminitis. The condition has also occurred in horses who are introduced to lush pasture too quickly, and in horses with sensitivity to sugar.
Reducing the pain of laminitis is one of the primary concerns in treatment. Anti-inflammatory drugs are often prescribed, and the animal is stabled on soft material. Corrective shoeing may also be used to distribute weight more evenly and make the animal's life more comfortable. The condition is not entirely curable, but it can be managed and many horses live with laminitis for years. However, there is a risk of flareup, and some cases simply cannot be treated; euthanization is the most humane humane option in these instances.