Laminitis charity closes with proud history of helping horses

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The grave of Secretariat, perhaps the most famous of horses to succumb to laminitis. The AHF ran a "memorial wall" where owners could pay tribute to their horses.
The grave of Secretariat, perhaps the most famous of horses to succumb to laminitis. The AHF ran a “memorial wall” where owners could pay tribute to their horses. © Sarah K. Andrew

A US charity that has been at the forefront of laminitis research for the past three decades will close its doors in 2019.

The Animal Health Foundation (AHF) was founded in 1984 by equine practitioner Donald M. Walsh, as a result of his frustration from the lack of understanding of laminitis and the need for more research in this field. Walsh and about a dozen of his friends, all horse owners from St. Louis, Missouri, began to raise funds for research and to teach awareness of the disease among horse owners.

Animal Health Foundation founder Don Walsh.
Animal Health Foundation founder Don Walsh.

Over the past 35 years, the 501 c (3) charitable corporation raised almost $2 million, and distributed it all toward research on equine laminitis – and only laminitis – all over the world.

It will disburse the remainder of its assets this year, close its doors, and reflect with some measure of pride on how much safer horses are today from the crippling disease of laminitis.

The AHF is known worldwide as a soft-spoken grassroots charity that raised money in small donations from people whose horses had been directly affected by or even succumbed to the disease. AHF was the product of its generous donors, and often the dollars increased similarly to tears shed in the face of heartbreak from the loss of a donor’s horse. It’s a painful, difficult disease for any horse owner to face.

Support for AHF grew as the years went by and so too did the funds granted for research. AHF took great pride in the fact that 100% of the gifts received from the public went directly to fund research, with administrative expenses covered by board members’ donations.

A notable beneficiary of AHF support was the Australian Equine Laminitis Research Unit (AELRU) at the
University of Queensland, led by Professor Emeritus Chris Pollitt. Pollitt and Walsh were a dynamic and
effective partnership for laminitis research and education.

“The early research focused on hoof lamellar anatomy, ultrastructure, physiology, molecular biology and pathology and from this knowledge base, progressed to the cusp of truly understanding the mechanism of laminitis,” Pollitt recalled.

“The AELRU gave the research community the two laminitis induction models (oligofructose and
hyperinsulinemia) currently in use internationally, from whence much of the current knowledge of
laminitis diagnosis, pathology treatment and prevention stems.

“The AELRU developed a protocol of distal limb cooling that is still the only scientifically proven laminitis prevention and treatment strategy for the disease,” Pollitt said.

The lab’s accomplishments form the bedrock of laminitis research. Pollitt is listed as an author in 111 peer-reviewed scientific papers on laminitis and the biology of the horse’s foot, as well as  author/contributor to 14 books and book chapters. Seventeen AELRU post-graduate students gained
either their masters or PhD degrees with the help of AHF support. AELRU peer-reviewed publications
have been cited 2460 times (average citations per year = 82) with an average of 23 citations per paper
published.

Chris Pollitt and Don Walsh in 2009.
Chris Pollitt and Don Walsh in 2009. © Julie Plaster

Interestingly, the majority of the Lab’s publications and citations have occurred since the official
retirement of Pollitt from his University of Queensland faculty position; grants from AHF enabled him to continue laminitis research well past retirement.

Pollitt noted that an estimated $US1.2 million came to the lab from AHF, and that AHF support helped
establish the University of Queensland’s position as a leader on the world map of laminitis research.

A short list of accomplishments creditable to AHF support of the Australian scientists include new
knowledge showing that:

  • lysis and separation of the hoof lamellar basement membrane (BM) is the focus of laminitis
    pathology in the sepsis form of laminitis;
  • lamellar basal cell cytoskeletal disintegration is responsible for failure of the suspensory apparatus of the distal phalanx in the hyperinsulinemia form of laminitis;
  • strategic distal limb cooling (cryotherapy) effectively prevents the laminitis process thus
    providing the first scientifically validated technique for laminitis prevention/therapy;
  • drugs can be delivered to the horse’s foot by regional retrograde intravenous infusion to achieve effective concentrations of potential laminitis therapeutic agents;
  • in vivo lamellar drug concentrations can be measured by microdialysis and ultrafiltration;
    blood flow to the foot during laminitis development is not restricted but instead delivers
    “laminitis trigger factors” that initiate laminitis pathogenesis; and
  • restricting blood perfusion to the lamellar region is pathological.

In 2009, the University of Queensland appointed Walsh to the position of Industry Fellow at the vet
school. Walsh frequently traveled to Australia to assist the laminitis research team and was a
contributing author on several published studies. The most recent of these, Insulin and incretin responses to grazing in insulin-dysregulated and healthy ponies with co-authors Fitzgerald, Sillence, Pollitt and De Laat appears in the January/February 2019 edition of the Open Access Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine.

Walsh’s support toward the Australian effort was fueled by donors back home in the United States. AHF
hosted several conferences on laminitis research, featuring speakers from all the schools funded by
donations, including the University of Missouri and Cornell. These events gave donors access to the
researchers, and energized the fundraising spirit.

Donations to AHF came from many small cheques. Farriers and veterinarians donated money to the
organization when their efforts to save a laminitic horse failed; they also helped owners contact AHF to arrange memorial donations.

Dr. Don Walsh tending to the hoof bandages on one of the many laminitic horses he treated at his Homestead Animal Hospital in Pacific, Missouri.
Dr. Don Walsh tending to the hoof bandages on one of the many laminitic horses he treated at his Homestead Animal Hospital in Pacific, Missouri.

“I am so appreciative of all our donors who had the confidence in me to donate their money for laminitis research,” Walsh said in the final days of the charity’s existence.

“With the knowledge we have gained from this research, diligent horse owners now have the tools to be
able to make laminitis a preventable disease in their horses. There is still more we need to know about
laminitis and I encourage both our supporters and the researchers to continue their efforts to free the
horse from laminitis.

“To those who participated as volunteers on fundraising projects over the last 35 years, I express my
heartfelt thanks and appreciation,” he concluded.

Funds raised in the later months of 2018 will be bestowed to the University of Missouri College of
Veterinary Medicine for laminitis research. AHF-funded research will continue to appear in veterinary
journals; in 2019, a study on laminitis pathology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Vet New Bolton
Center listed AHF as the funding source. Detection of endoplasmic reticulum stress and the unfolded protein response in naturally-occurring endocrinopathic equine laminitis by Cassimeris, Engiles and Galantino-Homer appears in the Open Access journal BMC Veterinary Research.

The AHF’s accomplishments can be summed up in the enduring quotation from anthropologist Margaret
Mead, who noted, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the
world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

The world’s horses who survived or avoided laminitis would certainly agree.

Anyone with outstanding business with the Animal Health Foundation should contact the office as soon as possible. No further donations will be accepted. AHF social media accounts and the charity’s website will be closed shortly, in compliance with Missouri law for the dissolution of charities. Animal Health Foundation 3615 Bassett Rd. Pacific, MO 63069 Tel: +1 636-451-4009 walshvet@gmail.com

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