Major threat to human health also a serious risk to horses – expert

Professor Andy Durham
Professor Andy Durham

The greatest threat to human health in the developed world presents similar risks for horses, a specialist in equine internal medicine says.

Professor Andy Durham, of Britain’s Liphook Equine Hospital and a visiting professor at the University of Surrey School of Veterinary Medicine, was discussing the links between metabolic syndrome in humans and its equivalent in horses ahead of an Australian veterinary conference.

Durham says metabolic syndrome, a problem that includes insulin resistance, has progressed into the greatest threat to human health in the developed world. It is a consequence of readily available high-calorie food and drink, containing refined sugars, alongside a more sedentary lifestyle.

“It should come as no surprise that this same concept applies to horses and is referred to as equine metabolic syndrome (EMS),” he says.

“The major consequence of EMS in horses is laminitis, a metabolic condition that affects the whole body but is expressed in the feet of a horse.”

Durham says the attitude to the cause of laminitis has changed dramatically in recent years.

“We’ve always known that an older, overweight pony is more susceptible to the disease than a younger thoroughbred, and it was always thought that eating excessive amounts of lush grass, high in simple sugars was the main culprit of laminitis.

“However, recent research evaluating grass intake in grazing horses and ponies has put a different slant on this theory.

“There have been two studies undertaken in the last few years investigating the underlying causes of laminitis in a variety of horses.

A horse suffering from laminitis.
A horse suffering from laminitis.

“In both studies around 90 per cent of confirmed cases were associated with an underlying endocrine (hormonal) disorder. Some presenting with Cushing’s disease – an overproduction of cortisol – and some with equine metabolic syndrome.

“So when horses and ponies with an underlying hormonal disease graze and ingest sugars – simple sugars, fructans and starch – from the grass, this stimulates abnormally high levels of insulin.

“In normal horses, without an underlying hormonal disease, grazing pasture is unlikely to lead to insulin levels high enough to cause laminitis.”

Durham says while treatment is important, lifestyle and dietary management are the key to reducing the incidence of the condition.

“The long-term feeding of sugar and starch-based feeds, particularly to overweight ponies and horses can lead to development of insulin resistance,” he explains. “So proper nutrition, exercise and weight management is important in preventing the disease.”

Durham will present the latest research on laminitis at the Equine Veterinarians Australia Bain Fallon conference on the Gold Coast, Queenland, being held from July 13-17.

Equine Veterinarians Australia is a special interest group of the Australian Veterinary Association.

More information on the conference here

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