Every day horse owners are faced with the debilitating effects of laminitis & founder. Veterinarians see hundreds of cases each year. While the exact mechanism of founder & laminitis are unknown, what is known that these diseases are, in most cases, preventable & treatable. Laminitis & founder are disorders that effect the entire body. Most often they are metabolic in nature, therefore systemic. Laminitis & founder are emergency conditions & a vet should be immediately called when either is suspected.
Most people use the terms laminitis & founder to mean the same disease. This is not quite accurate. Laminitis occurs when the blood flow to the laminae of the hoof is disrupted. Laminitis is an acute condition, meaning it's usually short-term & sudden. The laminae becomes inflamed & the horse is in pain. If the laminitis attack isn't arrested, the inflammation will weaken the laminae & the coffin bone to wall bond. If the laminitis is severe enough, the coffin bone will separate from the hoof wall & rotate within the hoof. As the coffin bone rotates downward, it will eventually sink & puncture the sole. Once this rotation of the coffin bone has occurred, the horse is said to have foundered. Founder is the chronic condition associated with the rotation of the coffin bone. Laminitis & founder usually occur in the front feet but can occur in the rears as well, with 1 or all hooves involved.
There are many causes of laminitis/founder, with overfeeding being one of the most common. Here are a few of the many causes:
1) Grazing lush, rich pastures in probably the number 1 cause of laminitis/founder. Grass founder is a risk when grass growth is greatest in early spring, or anytime after rain, sun & temperatures are sufficient to cause rapid plant growth. The sugar & starch content are highest at these times & the equine digestive process is unable to handle the sugar & starch over load. Changes in the gut flora cause toxins to be released into the bloodstream & these toxins are believed to disrupt the normal blood flow to the hooves.
2) Road founder is caused by a horse being overworked, usually on hard terrain. The constant concussion of the hooves on the hard ground causes stress to the hooves. It can also be associated with the metabolic stress of being overworked; including fatigue, dehydration, & exhausted horse syndrome.
3) Various ailments can cause founder, usually because the high fevers disrupt blood flow.
4) Bouts of severe colic.
5) Using black walnut shavings &/or eating parts of the tree; Black walnuts are toxic to horses.
6) Ingesting toxic plants or plants coated in toxic chemicals.
7) Over feeding of grain; carbohydrate overload.
8) Stress related to shipping, showing, competitions, & loss of sleep.
9) Reactions to drugs.
10) Poor farrier work; unbalanced hooves, nail pricks, shoes too hot, etc.
11) Equine cushings and/insulin resistance/Obesity!
12) Retained placenta
One of the most important signs to watch for if you suspect laminitis/founder is the digital pulse. Feel for a pulse above the heel bulbs at the back of the pastern. A horse who is having a problem will have a pulse here because the blood flow is disrupted. Another indicator can be heat in the hooves. Horses will be reluctant to move & may lay down & not want to get up because their feet are very painful. Some symptoms can be subtle, with the horse slightly stiff. Many will stand in the classical "founder stance", as they rock onto the backs of their heels to relieve the pain. Some think of this as the "sawhorse stance", with front feet stretched out to relieve pressure on the toes & the hind feet camped out behind. The horse will also rock from foot to foot to relieve pain. If you see any of these signs, contact your vet immediately. X-rays may be in order to determine that amount of bone damage & rotation.
The sooner treatment begins, the better the outcome. Because laminitis/founder is more than just a hoof issue, it's necessary to treat the entire body. Before the vet arrives you can stand the horse in buckets of cold water & ice. This will reduce swelling within the hooves as well as numb some of the pain. Your vet will probably prescribe anti-inflammatories to reduce swelling & to alleviate the horse's pain. Your horse's diet will need to be monitored & controlled. Feeds should be low starch, low sugar & low carbs. High quality forage without excess energy is important to manage these conditions. There are many different thoughts on treatment options & you will do best by working closely with your vet. While many people believe that special shoes, pads & wedges are necessary, my horses made dramatic improvement with Equicasts & Super Fast. This eliminated the need for pounding nails into already compromised hooves. Whatever option you & your vet choose, follow through.
The best way to treat laminitis & founder is to prevent it. Keep your horse's weight under control through exercise & smart feeding practices. Keep a routine hoof care schedule. Most importantly, KNOW your horse so you can detect the first signs of trouble.