Web-based British study targets laminitis risk factors

A horse affected by laminitis.
A horse affected by laminitis.

A web-based research project aims to take a closer look at management factors that may contribute to the development of laminitis in Britain’s horse and pony population.

More than 3000 British horse and pony owners are needed for the project, which ultimately aims to help all horse and pony owners reduce the threat posed by the disease.

The four-year study, being undertaken by the Animal Health Trust in partnership with the Royal Veterinary College, is being conducted by PhD student, Danica (Dee) Pollard, based at the trust.

It will explore management factors that may contribute to the development or recurrence of laminitis among Britain’s equines.

“This is an exciting opportunity for equine owners in Britain to actively take part in scientific research and contribute towards a study that seeks to improve the health and welfare of British equines,” Pollard said of the research, which is funded by the British charity World Horse Welfare.

“We need input from as many owners as possible,” she said.

Pollard urged Britain’s horse and pony owners to register their animals for the project.

“Each and every horse and pony is an eligible candidate and can join the study, regardless of past or present health status.”

The study intends to build on previous research by Dr Claire Wylie, also funded by World Horse Welfare, where factors including rapid weight gain, increasing time since last deworming, box rest in the previous week and new access to grass in the past month were shown to increase the risk of laminitis in horses and ponies.

Wylie’s study also revealed that other factors such as transport in the previous week and the feeding of supplements were associated with reduced laminitis occurrence.

Collectively, these factors are of particular interest to the new study because they are all modifiable, and can be changed by the owner.

Through modifying these contributing factors, it is hoped that horse owners can greatly reduce the significant welfare impact of this debilitating disease.

“We need owners of any horse or pony, regardless of whether or not they have a history of laminitis, to register their animals and complete a detailed online baseline questionnaire,” Pollard explained.

“This will provide general information about their animal, their management and previous and current health.”

Sections covered in the initial baseline questionnaire include general information about each horse or pony, turnout and management of grazing, stabling and indoor environment, feeding, exercise, transport, hoof care, health management, and recent health history.

Owners will subsequently be asked to review previously submitted information on a monthly basis, documenting any changes to the management routine or health of their animals.

Owners will also be required to report any episodes of laminitis in their horses/ponies via an online reporting form.

Information on the registered animals will be collected over a two-year period. Capturing changes in the animal’s environment as they happen, and the occurrence of laminitis, will create a timeline of events, increasing certainty that exposure to a factor actually contributes to laminitis occurring or not occurring.

“It is essential that we gather a large amount of data on individuals that will and will not develop laminitis, so that we can compare the two groups and establish whether the laminitic animals were more or less likely to be exposed to certain factors when compared to those that never developed the disease,” Pollard said.

Dr Kristien Verheyen, senior lecturer in clinical epidemiology at the Royal Veterinary College and a member of the study team, added: “This is a fantastic opportunity for horse and pony owners to be at the forefront of equine research and actively contribute to a collective ‘team effort’ to reduce the serious welfare consequences that laminitis has on our animals.

“Our previous laminitis studies have highlighted some novel factors that seem to be associated with the disease and it is crucial that we now build on these findings so that we can provide firm recommendations for management strategies to reduce the risk of laminitis in any horse or pony.”

The main aims are to:

  • Estimate the frequency of owner-reported laminitis, including both horses that are diagnosed by a vet and those that aren’t – thus we will know the impact this disease has on our animals.
  • Further investigate factors which increase or decrease the risk of an animal developing laminitis, especially focusing on factors relating to management that can potentially be changed by owners.
  • Provide owners with evidence-based guidelines that will reduce the impact of laminitis nationwide.

Currently, the veterinary-reported frequency of laminitis in Britain, estimated between 2009 and 2011, shows that active episodes of veterinary-diagnosed laminitis occurred in nearly 1 in 200 horses/ponies registered with veterinary practices, and accounted for nearly 1 in 200 equine visits.

“However, an overall lack of studies into the frequency of laminitis leaves little to compare these estimates with,” Pollard explained.

World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers said laminitis was a devastating disease that caused massive welfare issues all year round.

“This is why World Horse Welfare is continuing to invest in vital research to better our understanding of the contributing factors to laminitis and the recurrence of clinical signs.

“To do this we need the help of horse owners through contributing to online diaries and logging their individual horse management practices and recording any change – this will help identify what does or does not contribute to the development or recurrence of laminitis.

“Laminitis is a very complex disease and it will take a herculean team effort to help tackle it. That is why we are asking all horse owners to jump on board … in this fight against laminitis.

“The time you devote to this study could have profound benefits not only for your own horses but for horses everywhere.”

Horse owners interested in taking part can register at www.careaboutlaminitis.org.uk, or for more information email danica.pollard@aht.org.uk.


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