Common Clinical Signs of Laminitis

Laminitis is a painful disease in horses that is often illustrated by classic clinical signs. Recognizing these signs during early onset and seeking immediate veterinary care can improve the outcome of treatment, said James Orsini, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, director of the Laminitis Institute at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center.

Orsini and Nora Grenager, VMD, Dipl. ACVIM, of Grenager Equine Consulting, in Middleburg, Va., described the phases, clinical signs, and degrees of laminitis at the 2012 International Equine Conference of the Equine Limb--Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics, which took place Nov. 2-3 in Monterey, Calif.

Orsini explained that practitioners and researchers divide laminitis cases into three categories: acute (rapid onset with short but severe course), chronic (lasting for a long period of time or marked by frequent recurrence), and subclinical (not yet showing clinical signs). The condition most frequently occurs in the front hooves, which carry the majority of the horse's weight (estimated at approximately 60%) although it can affect the hind hooves as well.

Clinical signs of equine laminitis include:

  • Reluctance or inability to walk;
  • Weight-shifting or treading;
  • Increased respiratory rate and frequently increased heart rate;
  • A glazed, pained expression;
  • When front feet are affected, a stance with the hind legs camped under their body and forefeet camped out;
  • Bounding digital arterial pulses (throbbing); and
  • Feet that are hot to the touch.

Unfortunately, Orsini noted, recent research shows that structural failure of the laminae occurs hours, or even days, before these clinical signs are evident.

Additionally, Grenager described three degrees of laminitic changes seen clinically related to degree of hoof damage and coffin bone rotation that a horse might suffer. Those include:

  • Mild: No radiographic changes, lameness and clinical signs resolve within days;
  • Moderate: Mild radiographic changes, horse treated for months, lifelong management but possible return to work; and
  • Severe: Severe radiographic changes, ends athletic career, possibly fatal.

After a mild episode with no radiographic changes, Grenager said a horse needs at least a few weeks off proceeded by a slow return to work. After a moderate episode, if any radiographic changes are present, a horse might require four to six months of treatment and rehabilitation for hooves to stabilize. In severe cases, the hope is usually for a pasture sound horse or possibly a broodmare, Grenager said.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.