Unfortunately, insulin resistance and metabolic disorders often lead to laminitic horses. Most horse people have heard of these conditions but what do they really mean? Why are some horses obese while others eating a similar diet look fit and trim?
But how does metabolic imbalance lead to laminitic horses? What other body processes are involved in this progression? Why is a holistic approach so important?
To help put the pieces of the puzzle together, we spoke with Dr. Joseph Thomas, Ph.D. Dr. Thomas was a research scientist in the department of brain science at MIT. He left there due to ethical concerns and began studying Chinese medicine. For the next 20 years, he taught, consulted and practiced Chinese medicine, specializing in internal medicine for serious illnesses. When two of his own horses came down with laminitis, Dr. Thomas began researching the causes. His findings show that, with understanding and a holistic approach, the detrimental affects and deaths linked to laminitis can be greatly reduced.
Lisa: You did a great job explaining metabolic disorders in Part 1. Let’s chat about how that moves into laminitic horses.
Dr. Thomas: Part of the problem of laminitis is in the name – to have “itis” attached to anything means inflammation. So we have laminae inflamed. But language is so powerful that everyone starts thinking about laminitis in terms of the hoof so that’s where the focus normally is. Certainly for any of you out there who have a laminitic horse or have gone through that experience, all you can think about is the hoof. Because your horse is standing there in all that pain and can’t walk, the natural assumption is that the problem is in the foot.
Lisa: I think part of that comes from the conventional approach that focuses just on the hoof – corrective shoeing, anti-inflammatory and pain medications, sticking the horse in a stall and immobilizing him. We know, of course, that this approach is wrong because as you’re saying, this is a whole body problem that happens to be most apparent in the hoof.
Dr. Thomas: It is, and the end result of the metabolic disease for the horse is laminitis. As a reminder from Part 1, let me call into play the definition of diabetes, taken out of a clinical diagnosis. Diabetes is a disease in which the glucose levels in the blood are elevated because of deficient insulin or abnormal insulin action.
If it’s in the blood, it’s not getting into the cells. Glucose is a form of sugar that gives nurturing and sustaining life energy to all the cells in the body. This also means laminae cells. We now know through the work of Dr. Christopher Pollitt in Australia that if the laminae cells are deprived of glucose, you get separating, stretching and often coffin bone rotation under the weight of the horse. So here we are – we’ve got the beginning stage of the similarity between laminitis and diabetes.
Lisa: How do we then come up with a lame horse under these conditions?
Dr. Thomas: Keep in mind, environment also plays a role. Another definition of diabetes is difficulty in metabolizing carbohydrates, such as those found in a lovely green pasture, as well as grains, molasses and even some hays.
You have this horse who can’t metabolize the fructans, the sugar content of carbohydrates, so they’re moved down the digestive system into the small intestine. The current understanding is that the small intestine does not have the appropriate bacteria to digest the fructans so they get moved along the digestive path to the rest of the intestinal system, quickly fermenting in the large intestine. In that quick fermentation process the lining of the intestine gets damaged, making the intestinal system acidic and releasing toxins. The amazing circulatory system wants to feed the body everything that is processed, so the toxins move through the body and quickly find their way to the hoof.
Now, this is controversial but I believe that a vassal dilation occurs, which means the blood vessels open and allow the toxins to move very quickly into the hoof. When the toxins reach the hoof, an enzyme called MMP floods in and, along with the deprivation of glucose, separates the laminae. The important thing people need to understand is the fermenting process and acidic environment.
Lisa: Since we’re talking about a metabolic problem, how is the liver involved?
Dr. Thomas: The liver plays a role in intestinal pH by secreting bile into the small intestine. One of bile’s most important functions is to keep the small intestine alkaline, not acidic. I consistently find that laminitic horses have problems with proper bile secretion and you can measure this by testing bilirubin levels in the blood; total bilirubin is low and direct bilirubin level is high.
Laminitic horses already have an acidic internal environment. When they eat grass or carbohydrates, their individual bilirubin levels will determine if and how much damage will occur. Not every laminitic horse has the same bilirubin reading because each horse is at a different stage of the disease. That’s why some laminitic horses can eat a little grass and not have an episode, while others can’t.
Lisa: Because laminitis has so many facets other than the hoof, a holistic approach can be very beneficial, can’t it?
Dr. Thomas: Yes, you’re looking for a program that lowers blood glucose, works with the relationship between the pancreas and liver, helps to regulate metabolism, assists in the digestion of carbohydrates and fats and helps create an alkaline intestinal environment. I use Chinese herbs to address these areas along with a low starch/sugar diet and work with a barefoot trimmer who understands ground parallel coffin bone.
Lisa: Thanks so much for sharing your insights. I’m sure our readers have a much better understanding about this condition. The connection between metabolic disorders and laminitis in horses doesn’t have to be a mystery for the everyday horse guardian. By understanding the key players, the progression, and knowing where to turn for support, you no longer need to feel helpless.
For more information and articles by Dr. Thomas, visit www.forloveofthehorse.com
Transcribed from an interview first aired on the If Your Horse Could Talk show.