Laminitis from Dietary Intake

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How Does This Form of Laminitis Happen?

There are different forms and triggers of the disease in horses called Laminitis or sometimes called Founder sometimes it takes more than one trigger to create a full blown onset. However laminitis from a dietary cause is the most common and so firstly you need to know that starches and sugars (carbohydrates) are the problem in this type of the disease. Grass has starches and sugars, with the main sugar being fructans. Grain of course is also full of starches. Normally all these carbohydrates are digested in the small intestine assisted by enzymes which exist in that area. If the total intake of  carbohydrate is digested there, then there is not a problem. But if overloaded then undigested feed moves through to the hindgut and that’s where the problem lies. In order to digest in that part of the gut (which doesn’t have the right enzymes) the system issues forth lots of lactic acid. Unfortunately this excess lactic acid kills off good bacteria and as they die they give off a toxin, which then passes into the bloodstream and moves through the fine laminae of the feet, causing the problem called laminitis.

This toxin is not the same one as in mouldy feed and endophyte grasses. That is a fusarium toxin and some binders can be useful to remove them, but do not work on the laminitis toxin. The toxin that is released from killing the good bacteria needs something called mannan oligosaccharides (MOS) to help clear it. Also an extra intake of starch digesting enzymes will help to digest all the starch in the small intestine, thus reducing any undigested excess passing onto the hindgut. It is common to restrict grass intake and only feed a little fat and some fibre to animals prone to laminitis, but of course this is an unbalanced diet. Better to help the horse or pony to improve its digestion and be able to take in some grass and keep good condition than have to keep it in light condition and hungry.

What Are The Signs of Laminitis?

Acute laminitis is a very painful condition, it can have a quick onset and usually affects the front feet and results in a “rocking horse” stance as the horse or pony tries to shift their weight to the hind feet. The feet have a pulse and often feel hot. In established cases rings can be seen around the hoof wall. Overweight horses and ponies are particular prone, not just from the excess weight on the feet but also a hormone imbalance and possible insulin resistance. Chronic laminitis can even be a common problem in performance horses. These symptoms are non specific and are often blamed on sole bruising. They include: jarring up on hard ground, shortened stride, sore shoulder muscles, dished hooves with sheared heels, crumbling white lines and low grade seedy toe. At all times refer to your veterinarian for advice.

What Can be Done to Help?

There are successful options and management practices that can stop the disease and its associated pain. Remember it can be a multi-factorial problem, eg; trauma to the feet, poor shoeing, Cushing Disease, side effects of some drugs.

  1. If the horse shows signs of getting fat then cut down feed intake as overweight horses are definitely more prone to Laminitis. Feed according to work done, if the horse is being rested then reduce the feed.
  2. Ensure the angles of the feet are correct, this is so important, and shoeing is balanced and level. Sometimes special shoes can relive the pain in the feet.
  3. Pain relief is important so the horse moves around and keeps the circulation active, mud is useful or standing in a stream or cold water, or cool gel. Avoid stabling on a warm base like sawdust.
  4. The horse is better off in a sparse paddock where he has to move around to find forage. Lush pasture (especially that sown for dairy cattle) is most unsuitable. If a horse has to rotate into new paddocks, control the area with a mobile electric fence.
  5. Always wash hay as this will dissolve a lot of sugars. Dunk it in cold water in a mesh bag or haynet. Do not soak too long especially in Summer as warm and wet may start to ferment the hay.
  6. Feeding a supplement that provides the enzymes needed to improve initial digestion and also the MOS to clear the toxins. (Vetpro Digest-Rite does just that.)
  7. In Spring and Autumn avoid grazing early in the morning as the sun comes up. Grass produces sugar and starch all night but only uses up the sugar to grow when the temperature is warm, so cool frosty mornings mean a delay in that usage and so the sugar content is at its highest. When the day gets warmer the sugar level drops as the grass needs it to grow. Pen overnight, bringing in late afternoon just as sugars are getting to their highest point and provide with washed hay and go out to pasture when the sun is up.
  8. Avoid feeding grain, use a fat source for energy. Copra meal, soya bean meal and or Vetpro Muscle-Max.
  9. Feed Vetpro Digest-Rite. We have had many reports of successful results and much science is available on the active ingredients in the formula – viz the enzymes and MOS – ask for our data sheet if you would like to study the scientific tests.


Here are some of the scientific test results on the use of adding MOS to the horse’s diet:

From : Yeast cell walls in animal nutrition; differentiation and specific properties of MOS and beta-1,3/1,

6-glucans. Detlef Kampf, Marc Rovers, Felipe De Conti Horta, AMCRA 2012.

“Yeast products and more specific yeast cell walls are used broadly in animal nutrition today for different properties. There are different types of yeast cell walls and not every type has the same properties. It is important to distinguish between the different types and their specific properties in order to make the right choice. Basically the yeast cell walls have two major components of interest, being mannanoligosaccharides (MOS) and beta-1,3/1,6-glucans. The outside layer of a yeast cell wall consists mainly out of manno-proteins (MOS bound to protein). The beta-1,3/1,6-glucans are found directly underneath”.

“MOS is known for its ability to adhere to bacteria. Attachment of type 1 fimbriae to D-mannose receptors on various eukaryotic cell types can be inhibited by means of mannose-containing receptor analogues, such as yeast cell wall products (Becker, 2008).”

From : Effects of dietary short-chain fructooligosaccharides on the intestinal microflora of horses subjected to a sudden change in diet F. Respondek, A. G. Goachet and V. Julliand Jnl Animal Science 316-323

“Prebiotic compounds, such as short-chain fructooligosaccharides (scFOS), have been shown to improve health, welfare, or both, in several species, but few studies have been conducted in horses, despite the sensitivity of their hindgut microflora. We hypothesized that prebiotic oligosaccharides, known to be able to stabilize the intestinal microflora in other species, would be of importance in horses. Our study was designed to evaluate the effect of scFOS supplementation on the equine intestinal microflora and to assess its effectiveness in reducing hindgut microbial disturbances related to sudden diet changes.

These data indicate that a scFOS supplementation would be effective in reducing disruptions of the microbial populations in the equine hindgut under stressful situations like acute starch overloads. From : Dietary fructan carbohydrate increases amine production in the equine large intestine: Implications for pasture associated laminitis C. Crawford, M. F. Sepulveda, J. Elliott , P. A. Harris and S. R. Bailey, Jnl Animal Science 85 2919-2958

“the results from this study indicate that moderate increases in dietary fructan carbohydrate can produce increases in bacterial fermentation products and other compounds in the large intestine, which may be relevant to the pathogenesis of acute laminitis in ponies on pasture. “

From : Dietary supplementation with short-chain fructo-oligosaccharides improves insulin sensitivity in obese horses F. Respondek, K. Myers, T. L. Smith, A. Wagner and R. J. Geor. Jnl Animal Science 77-83

“Obesity and insulin resistance are risk factors for laminitis in horses and ponies, and diet can play an important role in modulating these risk factors. Dietary supplementation with prebiotic fibers, such as short-chain fructo-oligosaccharides. This study demonstrated that scFOS can moderately improve insulin sensitivity of obese horses, a finding that has potential relevance to the dietary management of obese, insulin-resistant horses at increased risk for laminitis.”

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