Disease's pain often leads to euthanasia


The disease that struck down thoroughbred great Secretariat is the same one threatening the life of this year's Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro.

Laminitis is an inflammation of the soft tissue - called the laminae - that connects the horse's bony foot to the hoof. As the lamina starts to break down, the bone can become detached from the hoof and rotate within it. The pain is often so intense that veterinarians recommend ending the horse's life rather than subjecting the animal to more suffering.

Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner, was put to sleep because of the disease in 1989.

"One of the hard things to understand is that there is no human counterpart to this disease because they have a hoof and we don't," said Dr. Nathaniel A. White, director of the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Va.

The condition can arise when a horse goes into shock from another affliction or eats too much grain, causing a carbohydrate overload. But, like Barbaro, some horses develop the condition after they suffer fractures and begin to bear extra weight on one side.

Normally, horses shift their weight from side to side to enable adequate blood flow to each foot. But when horses bear too much weight on one side, blood flow to the healthy hoof is compromised - causing inflammation and death of the connective tissue.

"We have not found a way in all horses to prevent this from happening when we have these severe fractures and have all this extra weight bearing," White said.

To help the horse regrow healthy tissue, veterinarians sometimes remove a portion of the hoof wall that is no longer connected to the bone. But this can cause complications of its own, as the exposed tissue can become infected despite antibiotics and other efforts to shield the tissue from bacteria.

With or without surgery, the horse ends up with two bad feet, and many must lie down for months to recover properly. "We've had horses grow new feet on a water bed, and we can also use a sling if the horse will tolerate it," he said.

But many simply can't tolerate the regimen or the pain.


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