Dr. Sammy Pittman is a renowned farrier and veterinarian – and an expert in the field of equine podiatry. Here, he offers some of his best advice for navigating winter laminitis.
By Jenn Webster
Laminitis is considered one of the emergencies of the equine world. In serious situations, the condition observes the inflammation or tearing of the sensitive and insensitive laminae away from one another in the horse’s foot. Worst-case scenarios involve the displacement or rotation of the coffin bone in the foot. If the horse can move when it occurs, the horse’s movement will be stiff and stilted, a higher digital pulse can be felt in its feet and the feet may be hot to the touch. The horse’s heart rate may also be elevated and the same with its respiratory rate. It’s an urgent situation that requires immediate attention and whatever care the horse receives in the beginning stages can determine how well the horse recovers from the condition.
Laminitis can be caused by retained placentas, hoof concussion or too much grain or lush grass. Other factors may include colitis or colic, or long term weight-bearing on a single leg. Commonly, laminitis is observed in warmer months when the horse is at full use, however laminitis may also be seen in winter months when horses are turned out to pasture or are on a break from their regular schedule.
“Laminitis can occur in the winter months for all the same reasons it does at other times of the year, but there may be additional risk factors contributing to it during colder weather,” says Sammy Pitman, DVM and owner of Innovative Equine Podiatry (IEPVS) in Collinsville, Texas.
Dr. Pittman has been a farrier for 20 years and a veterinarian for 17 years. His passion is all about equine podiatry, with a large focus on laminitis, founder, thin soles, navicular, foal limb development, angular limb deformities and more. His business is concentrated 100 per cent on equine lower limb and hoof problems and he has proven to be an invaluable resource for horse owners, and other veterinarians and farriers across the globe. As Dr. Pittman is based in Texas, one might wonder how knowledgeable this vet/farrier would be about equine podiatry in colder climates. Having lived near Anchorage, Alaska, for over two years, Dr. Pittman fully understands the effects an extremely cold climate can have on horses.
With his years of experience underneath the horse as a farrier and working as a veterinarian, Dr. Pittman gives us a better understanding of winter laminitis so we may be able to prevent this debilitating disease during cold weather. Read on for his thoughts and advice for keeping your horse comfortable this winter.
THE CHALLENGES OF WINTER
Winter laminitis is by definition, the same as regular laminitis – however, there may be other contributing factors leading to its occurrence in colder weather.
“It shapes up the same ways it does during other times of the year,” says Dr. Pittman. “But, going into the fall and winter months, there is a natural rise in the cortisol levels of the horse that creates more insulin resistance. Add that to decreased activity and the fact that the horse is not engaging its muscles and glucose levels as well, there are more stressors that can lead to laminitic changes.”
Dr. Pittman believes that the changes in cortisol levels are relative to seasonal and daylight changes. “In my mind, it’s something that changes the horse’s metabolism in the winter and helps them to grow hair and is a natural thing that happens to them. But for horses that are already high in cortisol and when they get a little more stimulation – then it’s problematic. It all depends on how high that horse is in cortisol before the seasonal rise occurs.”
Decreased activity, which usually happens when horses are turned out for the winter season, or if the owners are just not working their horses as often, means the horse’s muscles are not engaging glucose levels as well as they usually do.
“Exercise is important, especially as the muscles are the organs that play the very important role in managing insulin and glucose levels,” says Dr. Pittman. “So if those levels tend to creep up a bit and the horse is overweight, then add in the stress of winter and the natural changes in cortisol levels – combined with owners not decreasing feed relative to the decreased exercise – and it’s a perfect storm.”
With all these things going on, it’s easy to understand how laminitis can occur in the horse in wintertime. Although, Dr. Pittman explains that the condition is not specific to a time frame or season or the role the weather plays.
“It’s more the fact that there are all these added stressors during the fall and winter. It would be hard to pinpoint laminitis on any one thing. If it happens, it’s likely a combination of all those factors involved,” he states.
Moisture can be a problem for horses in the winter, Dr. Pittman explains. “In Alaska, it’s a big problem. The excessive moisture from snow in the winter can break down the sole of the horse’s foot and make the wall less durable. The wall and sole become ‘flexible’ and are not quite as supportive for the weight of the horse, as we would like.”
In these cases, Dr. Pittman says the horses present as though they do have laminitis – but not entirely.
“In Alaska, we saw a lot of horses where we weren’t sure if they were experiencing inflammation of the laminae or breakdown of the laminar bond. But the moisture was causing more of a weakening of the hoof capsule. So the hoof capsule became more bendable – not a rigid structure – and that would allow the weight of the horse to smash the sole of the foot,” he explains. “But the horse wouldn’t have any physical rotation of the bones of the hoof that would usually occur with laminitis. Once we got the feet dried out, the horse would return to normal without long-term complications.”
Another consideration to keep in mind is the type of ground the horse is standing on when winter weather – specifically, snow and moisture – occurs. Moisture creates mud, which is not always a healthy environment for hooves, as it can cause painful abscesses in the horse’s foot. However, moisture on top of an abrasive paddock surface is not good either as it can lead to the degradation of the hoof wall.
When it comes to the cold and snow, there is also another theory that involves the horse intermittently shunting its blood supply away from one foot to another, to regulate its body temperature. Some experts have wondered if this is another reason laminitis may occur in cold weather.
“There have been some studies in regards to what happens to the blood supply of horses in colder environments. It’s true they do regulate their temperatures away from each foot – shunt it away from one foot and into another, when standing in snow. Then one leg begins to warm up again, while another starts to cool down,” says Dr. Pittman. “But by the same token, we’re using ice to manage laminitis too… So I don’t think there’s been enough research work to directly link standing in the cold and snow with causing laminitis.”
Although laminitis can be a problem in the winter, Dr. Pittman says there are ways to avoid it – and prevention of this horrible equine disease is always best.
“Keep your horse’s feet as dry as possible and if you can’t do that because of environmental factors, keep them dry with Keratex Hoof Hardener,” he advises. “Apply it once or more a week, (just follow the label instructions). On top of that, good farrier maintenance will help you maximize healthy foot care. Trimming and shoeing relative to the biomechanics of the horse’s foot will help maintain the integrity of the hoof.”
He also says that managing weight and the horse’s diet is important, going into winter. “You don’t want your horse to go into the colder months obese – obesity at any time of the year is not good. With the fall increase of cortisol, plus stressors of cold weather and other things that are happening during this time, it all plays a major factor. My advice is that we should reduce the caloric intake of these animals, as compared to their exercise levels at this time. If their shoes get pulled and the horse goes on a reduced activity, then their caloric intake must be reduced as well.”
Additionally, aged horses or those with Cushing’s disease or Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) are more at risk for developing laminitis (at any time of the year). Familiarize yourself with the warning signs of these diseases and keep a close eye on your horses as they age. Make sure you’re checking on them closely throughout the winter. Things that may be subclinical in the early fall, might become clinical by winter due to being exacerbated by cold weather conditions.