When one of my donkeys, Sergeant Pepper, succumbed to laminitis in the spring of 2006, I was shocked. Although I’ve kept donkeys for 30 years, I’d always been told donkeys don’t get laminitis – fallacy number one.
I’ve spent time with horses since my early childhood. The Welsh pony that taught me to ride was a stock horse on one of the dairy farms of my extended family in north eastern Victoria. Shorty always went a little lame on his near-side-front after a couple of hour’s work. My cousin told me Shorty had foundered a few years ago and pretended to be lame so he wouldn’t have to work too hard – fallacy number two.
When I worked weekends at a racing stable in my early teens I heard of the dreaded founder. Horses were said to never recover – fallacy number three.
The six months after Pepper was diagnosed were a long road back to health for him and a steep learning curve of discovery for me.
Pepper was always a bit touchy about his feet. He often seemed a bit lame after a trim and at other times. I couldn’t find anything obviously wrong and put it down to his change from the rock-free, deep, basaltic soil east of Devonport to his new home on a rocky dolerite hill in Reedy Marsh.
The first sign that he had a serious problem was in August 2006 when he played up while I trimmed his hooves. I persisted for a couple of months until he just wouldn’t stand still for me. By this time [October 2006] his feet were overgrown and he seemed to be lame on both front feet.
I called on a natural hoof care practitioner who was recommended to me. He came the next day and gave me the bad news. He gave Pepper a “laminitis trim” and me some advice about feeding and wished us both luck. He said with natural hoof care and correct feeding he would recover but might need some anti-inflammatory drugs from the vet for his pain.
A few days later Pepper was very bad. He lay down and wouldn’t get up. Of course it was the weekend. I went to see the vet on Monday. He provided some anti-inflammatory drugs, some aspirin to thin his blood and sedative that assists with the vein/artery blood transfer at the coronary band. He was emphatic that I must get the donkey on his feet but was not optimistic about his recovery.
Pepper (left) and Bliss a year ago. Photo by Annemaree Woodward.
Both the equine practitioners I’ve just mentioned played an important part in Pepper’s recovery and I have no criticism of the approach of either, even though they differed. This article is not meant to disparage anyone who offers advice or treatment for laminitis. Rather it’s meant to point out how much conflicting information there is and encourage all equine carers to do their own research to become as informed as possible on this vital subject of equine health.
In the hard work and worry of the months of Pepper’s recuperation I asked experienced people and read everything I could find about laminitis. I was astonished at the great discrepancies in what I discovered.
Here is some of the advice I received first hand or in books:-
- Provide forced exercise to increase blood flow to the hooves. Put food and water a long distance apart to enforce movement
- The blood flow to the hoof is so slow that exercise has little effect on it
- Rest on soft bedding with food and water within reach
- Forced exercise of any kind while the animal is in pain is completely contra-indicated
- Fit polystyrene pads to the feet.
- Don’t fit polystyrene pads to the feet
- Remove shoes and adopt barefoot hoof care
- Special shoeing may be necessary
- Laminitis causes chronic, severe lameness
- Laminitis is a death sentence
- Laminitis can be cured by diet and proper natural hoof care
- Hoof testers can be used to determine the degree to which the hooves are affected
- Hoof testers are cruel and unnecessary for diagnosis of laminitis
- Shoeing causes laminitis
- Shoeing can prevent laminitis in horses working on hard ground
- Regular doses of an anti-biotic [Virginiamycin] can prevent further outbreaks
- Anti-biotic treatment is useless or even harmful.
There were two points on which there was complete consensus. Firstly that laminitis is extremely painful. I have no doubt about this: Pepper lay down and cried for several days. The second point of agreement is that laminitis has a dietary cause. While not everyone has the same opinion about how rich grasses cause the disease, all seem to agree that this the most common cause of laminitis.
Everyone providing advice says that the animal should have very limited access to grass and no grain feed or tid-bits until full recovery. Most recommend grass hay but few consider what nutrients are contained in the hay. The sugar content of grass and the hay made from grass has only recently come under consideration. It seems that much research is still required before equine owners can find out just how they can provide their animals with a diet close to what nature intended for them.
I’m no expert on treating laminitis but this is the approach I ultimately followed.
I didn’t have to adopt barefoot hoof care as my donkeys have never been shod but I did learn better ways to trim their feet following natural hoof care principles. Reducing their heel length has significantly improved both their stance and movement.
I’m of the opinion that pain is the body’s way of saying it needs a break so I provided Pepper with a deep bed of triticale straw in his shed with a large bucket of water in easy reach. I limited his access to grazing, providing only a small area of grass that had already been heavily grazed.
I gave him anti-inflammatory drugs to ease his pain. I tended him four times a day to give him his sedative injections. I also gave him homeopathic remedies for inflammation, stress and abscess prevention. I got him to his feet every time I tended him. As he improved it got to the stage that as soon as he saw me he’d get to his feet. These days if I see him lying down, he’s up within seconds of seeing me! I put polystyrene pads on all his feet. I’m absolutely sure they helped him.
I fed him a 1 in 4 mix of lucerne and oaten chaff with a tiny bit of oats for the taste. He wouldn’t eat chaff at all without oats then and would rather die than eat plain oaten chaff. I gave him a daily dose of Virginiamycin which I’ve continued as his hooves grow out. I gave him small quantities of grass hay four times a day.
I also brushed him every day because he couldn’t roll. This seemed to make him feel more contented. I let his mate out into the paddock during the day but brought her back to keep him company every evening.
Pepper in Dec. 07 – a bit fat again. Photo by Annemaree Woodward.
Slowly Pepper recovered but succumbed to abscesses in both his front feet in February. The natural hoof care practitioner cut these out and applied Epsom salts compresses to draw out the infection. This was successful but his recovery was set back by the abscesses.
Today more than fourteen months after I first noticed something was wrong Pepper still has some problems with his feet. This is not surprising given that it seems quite clear he had chronic laminitis when he first arrived here.
I hope that reading this doesn’t confuse or discourage you. I know that you can cure your donkey, pony, mule or horse of laminitis but you will have to be dedicated to his or her recovery.
I think that the conflicting information about laminitis is indicative that we are now seeing a threshold of change. This can be daunting but can also be seen as an opportunity for learning and adapting.
I hope all equine owners will learn as much as they can about how to prevent and treat laminitis. If we all learn how to look after these animals properly laminitis doesn’t have to continue to be the main killer of our equine companions.