A thermograph of a horse in the early stages of the onset of laminitis.

A thermograph of a horse in the early stages of the onset of laminitis.

James Waldsmith

Understanding the Threat of Laminitis

As mentioned in previous articles, Barbaro may be susceptible to other complications during his recovery because of the severity of his injury. According to veterinary surgeon Dean Richardson, horses in his case are particularly vulnerable to laminitis or other problems in the opposite foot.

There are many cases of laminitis, but the essential definition of the disease is an inflammation of the sensitive laminae of a horse's foot. Both front and hind feet can be affected, though the disease is most common in the front hooves.

Signs of laminitis may arise from many different apparent causes--grain overload, mechanical overload, severe illness such as a retained placenta, or reactions to medication.

The following is an excerpt from The Horse online health library to better understand unilateral laminitis, the form of the disease to which Barbaro could be susceptible.

"In this example, the horse has a very serious injury in one leg, which leaves him quite lame for several weeks, regardless of treatment, consequently causing him to bear full weight on the opposing limb throughout the recovery," wrote veterinarian R.F. Redden in an article entitled "Understanding Laminitis."

"Treating the original injury in successful fashion is one thing, but protecting the other foot from opposing limb laminitis is quite another. Many cases of acute unilateral lameness develop complicated opposing limb laminitis within six to eight weeks of injury. This problem occurs because the horse shifts its weight to that sound limb to relieve pain and pressure on the injured or sore leg. Constant and chronic weight bearing on one limb severely compromises normal blood flow to the laminae and precipitates local ischemic laminitis."

In the May edition of The Horse, Stephanie Church wrote that the more difficult aspect of Barbaro's care is making sure he is comfortable on his recovering limb in its plaster cast, and that he's bearing weight evenly on his limbs.

Thermography measures changes in blood flow. Hot spots in red and white show problem areas. The thermograph above shows the heat of inflammation experienced in the early stages of laminitis.

At a Tuesday morning news briefing at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, Richardson explained that he has taken steps to prevent laminitis in Barbaro's uninjured hind limb, which is at risk if it bears more weight than the other leg for an extended period of time.

"When he came in, his racing shoes were removed altogether, and his left hind foot was shod with a special glue-on shoe that has special padding, which also raises his foot up a little bit so his limb length is equivalent to the cast limb on the right hind," he said. "So he has a special shoe in place."

Added Redden: "Fortunately, many of these catastrophic injuries can be treated successfully in four to six weeks. Unfortunately, that's about the time the good foot crashes with a devastating case of laminitis. It is not unusual to see it within two weeks following an acute injury."

The veterinarian closed, however, with the optimistic outlook that a large percentage of traumatic laminitic cases can be prevented with early mechanical aids.

To read more about laminitis, we recommend the following titles:
Understanding Laminitis

Care & Management of Horses