Every year laminitis claims a startling number of Thoroughbred lives, with the most recent well-known case being Smart Strike, who succumbed to the disease in late March. Over the past few years, veterinarians have developed a new arrow in their quiver of weapons against the crippling condition.
Laminitis occurs when the laminar tissue of the hoof becomes inflamed, posing a risk to the connective tissue between the hoof capsule and the coffin bone. The illness can have a variety of causes and vary in its severity — some horses live with it for years without diagnosis, while others succumb to the disease in a few days. Conventional treatment includes supportive shoeing, anti-inflammatory drugs and icing of the feet to relieve discomfort and encourage stabilization and eventually, regrowth of healthy hoof wall and tissue.
In recent years, veterinarians and equine scientists have tested the effectiveness of stem cells in the healing process for soft tissue injuries, and the podiatrists at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital have examined their usefulness in laminitis cases. The results of a 3-year survey of cases and results, presented at the 2014 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, have been encouraging in some circumstances.
Veterinarians learned that cases that were treated with stem cells quickly were most likely to show improvement. The median time from onset of laminitis to stem cell treatment in the study was 71 1/2 days. For horses treated before this threshold, there was an 87% chance of success after stem cell treatment. Horses treated later had a 53% chance of success. All 10 of the cases that received stem cell treatment less than 30 days after onset showed improvement.
Age appeared to play a role, too; median equine age of the 30 cases studied was 11. For younger laminitic horses treated with stem cells, there was an 82% chance of success, compared with a 50% chance for older horses.
One of the more high-profile cases to benefit from stem cell treatment for laminitis is Bal a Bali, the 2014 Brazilian Triple Crown winner. Fox Hill Farm bought the horse after an extremely successful South American campaign but was alerted to a health issue while the horse sat in quarantine after disembarking the plane in the U.S. The problem turned out to be laminitis, which equine veterinarian Vern Dryden treated with stem cells, cold therapy, and even maggot therapy.
On May 9, Bal a Bali won the Grade 3 American Stakes at Santa Anita in his U.S. debut — after nearly a year’s rehabilitation and training.
Although these numbers are heartening for cases of young horses receiving treatment quickly, Dryden cautioned the therapy is “not a magic bullet.”
“You have to have proper hoof care management of the laminitic foot,” says Dryden, who is a certified journeyman farrier in addition to being a veterinarian in Rood and Riddle’s podiatry department. “They’ve shown promise and they seem to be helping in some situations, but they’re not a cure-all.”