The Connection Between Laminitis and Insulin Resistance in Horses

A professional veterinarian, wearing latex gloves and with stethoscopes draped around their neck, expertly adjusts a horseshoe on the hoof of a brown horse. The scene is set against a backdrop of dry grass, showcasing the dedicated care provided to the equine patient.

Laminitis is a dreaded and often devastating condition that affects equines. It is characterized by inflammation in the laminae within a horse's hooves, which can lead to extreme pain, lameness, and, in severe cases, the need for euthanasia. While many factors can trigger laminitis, a significant and often overlooked link is its association with insulin resistance (IR). Insulin resistance is the #1 cause of laminitis in the world. In this blog, we'll explore the intricate relationship between laminitis and insulin resistance in horses.

Understanding Laminitis:

Before we explore the connection to insulin resistance, it's essential to understand what laminitis is. Laminitis occurs when there is inflammation in the sensitive laminae, the soft tissues within a horse's hooves that connect the pedal bone to the hoof wall. These laminae play a crucial role in supporting the horse's weight and maintaining the structural integrity of the hoof. When inflammation occurs, it can disrupt this connection, leading to severe pain and lameness.

Laminitis Triggers:

Laminitis can be triggered by various factors, including:

  1. Dietary Factors: Overindulgence in rich or sugary pasture grasses, grain-based diets, or sudden dietary changes can lead to digestive issues and increase insulin resistance.
  2. Metabolic Disorders: Certain metabolic disorders, particularly insulin resistance, are strongly associated with laminitis in horses.
  3. Endocrine Disorders: Cushing's disease (PPID), Insulin Resistance (IR)
  4. Trauma or Infection: Physical injuries, infections in the hooves, or other forms of trauma. Pain in these increase insulin resistance.

Insulin Resistance and Laminitis:

Insulin resistance is a condition in which the body's cells do not respond effectively to insulin, resulting in higher insulin levels in the blood. While it is most commonly associated with humans, it is increasingly recognized as a significant factor in equine health, particularly in relation to laminitis.

The link between insulin resistance and laminitis is multifaceted:

  1. Increased Blood Insulin Levels: Insulin resistance often leads to elevated insulin levels in a horse's bloodstream. These high insulin levels can trigger laminitis. Excess insulin can cause vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels) and lead to decreased blood flow to the hooves, contributing to laminitis.
  2. Inflammation: Insulin resistance can promote low-grade inflammation throughout the body, including the hooves. This chronic inflammation can weaken the laminae and make them more susceptible to the inflammatory cascade that characterizes laminitis.
  3. Increased Fat Deposition: Insulin resistance often results in abnormal fat accumulation, particularly in the neck and over the crest. This fat, also known as adipose tissue, can secrete proinflammatory molecules and exacerbate the inflammation associated with laminitis.

Recognizing Insulin Resistance in Horses:

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Identifying insulin resistance in horses is crucial for preventing and managing laminitis. Some common signs of insulin resistance in horses include:

  1. Unexplained Weight Gain: Horses with insulin resistance often gain weight easily and store fat in unusual places, such as the crest of the neck and behind the shoulder blades.
  2. Abnormal Fat Deposits: The development of fat pads in places like the crest of the neck or the tailhead is a standard indicator.
  3. Laminitis Episodes: Recurrent or unexplained episodes of laminitis should raise suspicion of underlying insulin resistance.
  4. Abnormal Insulin Levels: Blood tests can confirm insulin resistance by assessing glucose and insulin levels. Insulin will be higher than normal while glucose levels are normal. 

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Preventing Laminitis in Insulin-Resistant Horses:

Managing insulin resistance is critical for preventing laminitis. Here are some steps horse owners can take:

  1. Dietary Changes: Transition to a low-starch and low-sugar diet, which may involve limiting or eliminating access to pasture grasses. Ration balancers are a great option.
  2. Regular Exercise: Encourage regular exercise to help maintain a healthy weight and improve insulin sensitivity.
  3. Medication and Supplements: Consult a veterinarian about using medications or supplements to help manage insulin resistance. Pain increases insulin, so pain management is required.
  4. Regular Monitoring: Keep a close eye on your horse's weight, body condition, and hoof health. Routine blood tests may also be necessary to monitor insulin levels.
  5. Farrier and Hoof Care: Work closely with a knowledgeable farrier to maintain proper hoof health. Correct trimming and shoeing are essential for managing laminitis-prone horses.

The connection between laminitis and insulin resistance in horses is a critical area of equine health that every horse owner should be aware of. Recognizing the signs of insulin resistance and taking proactive measures to manage it can significantly reduce the risk of laminitis. Additionally, collaboration with a knowledgeable veterinarian such as Dr.Reilly at Equine Medical and Surgical Associates is crucial for developing a comprehensive care plan for insulin-resistant horses. By understanding and addressing the link between these two conditions, we can help improve our equine companions' well-being and quality of life.  For more information on all the products and services that Equine Medical and Surgical Associates provides, contact us here