Cryotherapy for Laminitis Prevention after Lameness Onset

Get your ice buckets ready: a recently completed study has shown that submerging laminitic horses' hooves in ice and water (a practice termed digital hypothermia or cryotherapy) after the onset of clinical signs can slow the progression of internal damage caused by the disease.

During a presentation at the 2012 American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Forum, held May 30 - June 2 in New Orleans, La., Andrew W. van Eps, BVSc, PhD, MACVSc, Dipl. ACVIM, senior lecturer in Equine Medicine at The University of Queensland School of Veterinary Science, discussed the study's findings with a veterinary audience.

"Several studies have demonstrated that digital hypothermia reduces the severity of laminitis lesions when initiated early in the developmental stage of ... laminitis," van Eps said. "However, it remains unclear whether there is still a beneficial effect when cryotherapy application is initiated after the detection of lameness."

To test the effects of cryotherapy on lame, laminitic horses, van Eps and colleagues prompted laminitis development in eight horses. When lameness was first observed, the team submerged one front hoof in ice and water; the other limb remained untreated so the horses could serve as their own controls, he said. Van Eps noted that the horses received continuous analgesic (pain-killing) medication in their forelimbs to keep the animals comfortable during the trial.

After the horses' limbs had been submerged for 36 hours, the team harvested the lamellar tissue from both limbs to compare disease progression with and without cryotherapy. Two blinded observers evaluated the histopathologic samples and graded disease severity on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being the most severe disease progression.

Key findings included:

  • Scores for hooves subjected to cryotherapy (an average score of 1) were significantly lower than hooves left untreated (an average score of 3.5); and
  • Four of the eight untreated hooves showed total lamellar separation, while the corresponding treated hoof had significantly less damage (a score of 1 in three horses and 2 in one horse).

"These data indicate that digital hypothermia effectively prevents the progression of lamellar injury--and even structural failure--when initiated at the detection of lameness in an acute laminitis model," van Eps concluded. "This research demonstrates for the first time that the technique is useful even after lameness has developed, and, therefore, there are many more horses than we previously thought that could benefit from this therapy.

"What we really need is a practical and effective means of cooling horse feet continually for long periods--although it sounds simple, such a device is not yet available," he added.

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