What Can Cause Laminitis?

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Yep ... it's true. 

It all lands in the feet. 


Whatever goes INTO your horse is gonna come out. And that means if there is stress on the body then the lactic acid that is produced as a protective factor is gonna go right to the hooves. 

"When undigested starch and sugars reaches the hindgut, the microbial fermentaiton process in the cecum produces a higher level of lactic acid. This creates a more acidic environment in the hindgut (lowering the pH), resultin gin the state known as hindgut acidosis." ~www.succeed-equine.com

Simple interpretation?  Horses are commonly fed just two or three times a day and their diets consist of large amounts of processed grain feed. Both of these are completely different from how horses function in nature and can quickly lead to digestive problems in horses. One major consequence of typical feeding practices is a high concentration of sugars and simpler starches in the diet. These simple carbohydrates have significant potential to reach the horse’s hindgut undigested – instead of being absorbed in the small intestine where carbohydrates ought to be. When undigested starch and sugar from processed feeds reach the hindgut it then ferments in the cecum. This produces higher levels of lactic acid than what is normally produced. Lactic acid causes the pH to lower thus allowing the 'bad' bacteria to proliferate and the 'good' bacteria in the gut to reduce in numbers.

And what happens from there?  

Hindgut acidosis is itself a health risk, as the lower pH can kill beneficial bacteria and allow dangerous pathogens to pro;oferate – the beginning of more serious digestive distress.

And, not only digestive distress.

Many health disorders, such as laminitis and colic, are associated with hindgut acidosis which results from a starch overload in the digestive system. Hindgut acidosis is most commonly caused by a high grain and low forage diet.

As mentioned in previous blog posts

There are four phases to the progression of laminitis:

  • Developmental: Period of time that is initiated by a cause or insult and ends with the first appearance of lameness.
  • Acute: Follows the developmental phase where either no radiographic changes to the hoof occur or movement of the coffin bone occurs.
  • Subacute: If there is no physical or radiographic collapse of the coffin bone, the next 8 –12 weeks are considered the recovery or repair stage.
  • Chronic: If there is physical or radiographic movement of the coffin bone, the horse has chronic laminitis or founder. The length of this phase is dependent on the degree of rotation in the coffin bone and the success of treatment.  For horses with chronic laminitis, the degree of recovery may not be determined for months or even years.

During exercise, the body uses oxygen to break down glucose for energy. During intense exercise, there may not be enough oxygen available to complete the process, so a substance called lactate is made. The body can convert this lactate to energy without using oxygen. But, lactic acid can build up in the bloodstream faster than it can be burned off.

Now connect a couple of dots. 

Hindgut acidosis is most commonly caused by a high grain and low forage diet. If the horse is not exercised enough, the lactic acid will build up and doesn't get burned off. This causes low pH which then allows for pathogens to overtake the system. 

A stressed system will facilitate the onset of laminitis --

"The incidence of laminitis does appear to increase with excessive or sudden carbohydrate intake. Rapid fermentation of soluble carbohydrates (starch, sugars and fructans) reaching the large intestine results in lactic acid buildup, and a horse’s hindgut has not evolved to handle much lactic acid. One possible reason for laminitis is that the lactic acid causes an excessive decrease in pH in the hindgut, which in turn causes the lysis (bursting) of certain bacteria and a release of endotoxins. If the lining of the hindgut is damaged by the lactic acid or irritated by diarrhea, it absorbs these endotoxins. These endotoxins may alter circulation in the foot leading to the development of laminitis." ~http://myhorseuniversity.vudat.msu.edu/

Further --- 

"Laminitis begins when bacterial endotoxins and lactic acid are released into the horse's bloodstream." ... "The endotoxins and lactic acid dilate the large arteries and cause constriction of the small capillary vessels that nourish the laminae - the soft tissue structures that attach the coffin or pedal bone of the foot to the hoof wall. Deprived of blood, the laminae swell, causing tissue damage because of the rigidity of the hoof wall." ~ http://equimed.com

"The endotoxins and lactic acid dilate the large arteries and cause constriction of the small capillary vessels that nourish the laminae - the soft tissue structure that attach the coffin bone of the foot to the hoof wall. Deprived of blood, the laminae swell, causing tissue damage because of the rigidity of the hoof wall."  ~Christopher Pollitt, 

When the horse is stressed in some manner, it does not breath properly and, as a result, the normal lactic acid is not carried away but, instead, is increased in volume with the above mentioned results. ... 

So, what are some stressors?  Let's go over a short list: 

  • Too much grain, starch, sugar. Processed feeds
  • Too much hard exercise
  • Not enough exercise
  • Stressful situations:  fear based
  • Stressful situations: organically based i.e. : toxic vegetation, water supply.
  • Stressful situations: chemically based i.e. : air-born toxins ie: chemical pesticides, herbicides; vaccinations; topical chemical based pesticides; internal chemical treatments

It sounds as if we can't get away from things that cause stress and, actually, that's pretty much true. 

So why do some horses react badly and go laminitic after vaccinations or with antibiotic treatments, etc? 

It really boils down to one thing and that's the immune system ... if the immune system is healthy then the horse will be healthy. 

One must FEED the immune system. Stop thinking about feeding the horse's appetite ... feed the horse's immune system. By doing this you will be feeding the hooves as well as the rest of the body. 

Here on PENZANCE Farm we feed the immune systems of all the critters here by feeding a "species appropriate" diet. In short, we feed the dogs like dogs, the cats like cats and the horses like horses! And we try hard to make sure its all organic without any chemical additives or enhancers or adulterants. 

The immune system is the FIRST line of defense against diseases ... whether hoof-related or not. 

Think about this a bit and then tell me, what is a 'species specific' diet for a horse?  How does one feed a horse like a horse?  Are you feeding processed grain that is starch and sugar? What do you now know about the digestive process that you didn't know before? Is your horse chronically owie? Have you ever thought of diet related laminitis before? What about stress related?  Does your horse go laminitic after getting vaccinations? 

There's alot more to this than what is posted here.  

It all lands in the feet.

Questions? Remarks? 

Discussions welcomed. :) 



Gwenyth Browning Jones Santagate is the best-selling author of 10 Secrets to Healthy Hooves as well as a noted author for various international equine publications includingThe Horses Hoof, Equine Wellness, Natural Horse Planet as well as a contributing author for the 2001 United States Federal Mounted Border Patrol Training Manual. For the last 37+ years, she has maintained healthy hooves with natural trimming on thousands of horses and specialized in pathological rehabilitation hoofcare for the last 18 years. She and her husband John keep a small herd of their own equine in SW Florida and continue to offer consults for horses in need. For further information please click here:  www.thepenzancehorse.com/2012/RESUME.pdf




  • Charles Owen: June 21, 2017

    This message is incorrect! The fermentation process and lactic acid is produced By the sugars MANUFACTURED INSIDE the horse body due to the Stress and Cell immune response. THis process is taking place within the horses body NOT from what it eats. lack of knowledge of the stress response is leading people to think it is the sugar that a horse consumes instead of the sugars manufactured within the horse from the stress response that activates the fermentation process in the hind gut.

  • Barbara Breckenfeld: June 21, 2017

    Gwenyth – Thanks for this helpful post explaining the links between diet, immune system, and laminitis. It makes sense, but understanding it in more detail educates me to make better choices for my horse and sort through an overwhelming amount of information!

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