Horse owners should consider laminitis to be a year-round threat, according to researchers who found that less than quarter of affected animals showed the classical sign of rocking back on their heels.
The study conducted at Britain’s Animal Health Trust showed that there was no “safe” season.
Owners were urged to remain vigilant and not reduce preventive measures when they misconceive the “high-risk” period has passed.
The research, in collaboration with the Royal Veterinary College and Rossdales Equine Hospital, revealed that one in every 10 horses or ponies may develop at least one laminitis episode each year, making it just as common as colic.
The newly published research, which had the backing of World Horse Welfare, alerts horse and pony owners to the importance of recognising subtle signs of potentially life-threatening episodes of laminitis.
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 the walk, which is present in more than 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 hoofrings – 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 were 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.
“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,” said Dr Danica Pollard, of the Animal Health Trust.
“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.”
The trust, with ongoing support from the Margaret Giffen Charitable Trust and World Horse Welfare, intended to conduct research this year to identify which management and health factors are collectively associated with laminitis development within this population of animals.
The results should be available later in the year.