Friday, January 18, 2019

Laminitis Prevention: British Veterinarians Issue Alert to Prevent Spring Laminitis in Obese Horses

Links between equine obesity and laminitis are well documented, but veterinarians still report an increase in obesity; latest estimates are that as many as fifty percent of all horses in the United Kingdom may be overweight and at risk for related health problems. Today the British Equine Veterinary Association issued an official warning to owners that is valid all over the world. 

From the BEVA warning:

The British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) is urging horseowners to act now to prevent weight-related health and welfare risks in their horses this spring. Some studies suggest that more than half of certain horse populations in the United Kingdom are overweight.

According to BEVA, domesticated horses and ponies have greater access to forage, hard feed, stabling and blankets; they can quickly pile on dangerous excess pounds. 

Weight gain significantly increases the risk of potentially fatal diseases, such as laminitis, as well as placing detrimental pressure on joints. If a horse or pony is overweight, its ability to perform any activity--competitive or otherwise--will be compromised.

Equine obesity is not a new problem, but it appears to be becoming more and more common. Not only ponies and native breeds are susceptible; studies have identified a high incidence of obesity in leisure horses and some competition horses, especially those competing in showing and dressage.

“Not only are many horses being unintentionally over-fed, over-rugged, and under-exercised but, as perceptions of what constitutes a healthy weight have become distorted, overweight has become the norm,” said veterinarian David Rendle from BEVA's Health and Medicines Committee.

He continued: “A recent survey of more than 500 horse owners confirmed that owners have a poor ability to visually identify overweight animals and that perceptions of ideal weight for animals participating in showing classes was perceived to be significantly greater than for other equestrian disciplines.” (1)

Case in point: Ocko

Ocko, a 17-year-old severely overweight cob mare, developed laminitis in March 2018 and was in so much pain that she was close to being euthanized.

Veterinarian Joe Mackinder at Rainbow Equine Hospital in Yorkshire, England, diagnosed equine metabolic syndrome as the mare's underlying problem. He provided a low sugar diet plan to help Ocko lose weight safely. Also, because the horse was in so much pain, he prescribed medication to hasten weight loss and help her laminitis.

A laminitic mare was put on a weight reduction program after Equine Metabolic Syndrome was diagnosed. At left is the mare in the spring; at right, in late summer. (Photos courtesy of BEVA)

Mackinder said: “Through the remainder of the winter, Ocko was clipped and only had a lightweight rug so she could lose weight during the colder weather, as horses are supposed to. The owners were very diligent with following advice and sticking to the diet plan. 

"By August, Ocko was back in normal work and had lost a lot of weight," he concluded. "She was sound, had a lot more energy and was performing better.”

Ocko’s owner, Andrea Hetherington, said: "I would urge people to listen to their vet and stick to what they are asked to do -- it's not an overnight recovery, it takes time and patience.

“The changes made for Ocko are for life, to ensure she stays as sound as possible. We now take pride in the fact we can see her ribs," she continued. "We never realized how overweight she was and when we were warned she was gaining weight we made excuses. As a result, we came within hours of losing her. We would never have forgiven ourselves.”

The Ethics of Obesity

Veterinarian Lucy Grieve, Chair of BEVA's Ethics and Welfare Committee, continued: “There seems to be a stigma attached to having a ‘fit’ or lean horse on many livery yards (boarding stables) when, in fact, such a horse is highly likely to be healthier than its overweight neighbor.”

“I can’t emphasize enough that prevention is better than cure," Grieve continued. "Avoiding weight gain is notoriously easier than trying to effect weight loss, so spotting that your horse is starting to put on weight is critical. Vets and owners need to work together as a team and monitor horses routinely. Taking steps to support weight control now and establish a healthy weight for your horse or pony is important to reduce the increased risks come the Spring.”

BEVA is currently developing information and tools to help vets work with owners as a team to tackle equine obesity.

For further information visit

(1) Morrison, P. K., Harris, P. A., Maltin, C. A., Grove-White, D., Barfoot, C. F., & Argo, C. M. (2017). Perceptions of Obesity and Management Practices in a UK Population of Leisure-Horse Owners and Managers. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 53, 19-29.

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