WHY DOES FAT CAUSE LAMINITIS?
In all animals there are two types of fat - good fat and bad fat. Bad fat is fat which produces toxins which can cause damage to other parts of the body.
In humans the bad fat is in our abdomens and the toxins produced can cause damage to the heart; it is proposed that the amount of abdominal fat is directly proportional to our risk of a heart attack for this reason.
In horses it is the opposite! The abdominal fat is good fat and will not make toxins – hence why you may see really fat looking horses with big bellies who never get laminitis. It is in fact the peripheral fat which lives in the ‘fat pads’ which is bad toxic fat – these fat pads are found in the crest, behind the shoulder, next to the loins and at the tail head. The area which gets damaged by horse fat toxins is not the heart, it is the laminae.
We also know that the longer fat is sat in these pads the more toxic it goes so there is a cumulative effect over time increasing the risk of laminitis. The most at risk horses are those who gradually put a bit more fat on every year on top of the old fat. If a horse follows its naturally designed cycle of putting on fat in the summer and losing it every winter then the fat doesn’t get time to go toxic and therefore risk of laminitis is low. This theory is proven by observing the native new forest ponies on the moors who get fat in summer and are very skinny in winter – they do not get laminitis!
Here are some practical tips to keep scary toxic fat at bay and prevent laminitis:
Let nature do its’ thing and make use of winter – it is your best friend if you own a good doer!
Be critical now – look at your horse and feel the danger areas (crest/shoulders/tail head) – if they are carrying a little too much weight, especially in the fat pad regions, aim to have them slimmer at the end of winter- remember if those pads are still present in spring it will go toxic. Monitor progress throughout winter by taking photographs and using weight tapes.
Do not over-rug! Let your horse feel the cold so that they use the fat pads to keep warm as they were designed to be used – nature really does know best! It has recently been suggested that over-rugging is a welfare issue in the UK equine population. If you’re horse is overweight, really try not to wrap them up too warm, you will not be helping them.
Do not increase feed unless you need to – there is a cultural issue with us increasing the feed because “it’s winter” – however in recent years we have not had very cold winters at all and the feed requirements in all likelihood do not increase. If your horse loses weight then react and increase the food, but please don’t pre-load them because of habit without critically assessing their need.
Grass and hay are full of sugar! The biggest contribution to sugar in the diet and cause of increasing fat is the long fibres, e.g. grass and hay. Soaking hay for a minimum of 2 hours is highly effective at reducing sugar content in the hay and can make a huge difference to a horse’s weight and metabolic state – this is a simple and very effective weight loss strategy which can be worked into your routine as well as restricting grass if possible.
Image demonstrating the fat pad regions where toxic fat lives:
Guide to rugging by BETA – note that an unclipped horse that is turned out all of the time does not need a rug until below 0 degrees: