The Case for Feeding Omega-3s to Horses with Laminitis

Horse hoof prints in the mud

Laminitis is one of the most devastating diseases for horses and horse owners. And spring in particular can be a deadly time of year.

During winter, plant growth is limited due to colder temperatures. But as warmer weather arrives, grasses start growing and can accumulate sugars, called fructans, that can put horses at risk of developing pasture-induced laminitis when they consume too many of these sugars.

Of course, laminitis stems from a variety of physical and biological causes in addition to carbohydrate overloading. Interestingly enough, while one thing a horse consumes can lead to laminitis, another consumable item can help a horse suffering from the disease.

Yes, we’re talking about omega-3 fatty acids.

What Is Laminitis?

Laminitis is a painful inflammatory condition that involves tissues in the hoof called laminae or the laminar interface. The laminae connect the coffin bone (aka, third phalanx, P3, or pedal bone) to the interior hoof wall. Various causes can result in the laminae tearing and separating, causing the coffin bone to move. This movement can lead to damage, bruising, and pain, and the coffin bone can even sink into the sensitive sole.

Contrary to popular belief, laminitis is not specifically caused by factors related to how we manage domestic horses. Research from a group out of the Australian Brumby Research Unit at the University of Queensland in Australia and with wild Przewalski horses in Hungary has shown that wild horses can also suffer from laminitis. The fact that it can affect any horse, regardless of age, breed, and management, makes it an especially terrifying disease.

The following factors come into play when laminitis is at work in the equine hoof: inflammation and pain, toxins circulating in the blood, reduced blood flow and clot formation, mechanical stress, and separation of the sensitive laminar layer.

How Omega-3 Fatty Acids Can Help

As mentioned above, one of the hallmarks of laminitis is inflammation and pain. And reducing inflammation and pain are what omega-3 fatty acids do best.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of fat molecules that help cell membranes function by controlling the inflammatory response and the storing of energy. The omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in particular is important for reducing the inflammation response. This is because EPA competes with the pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids to reduce ongoing inflammation and prevent inflammation from occurring.

Besides reducing the inflammatory response, there are other ways omega-3s can help laminitic horses too.

It’s well known in the medical community that laminitic horses often have insulin resistance (decreased insulin sensitivity). This insulin resistance has been noted in several other equine conditions, such as osteoarthritis, Cushing’s and Equine Metabolic Syndrome. Studies in horses, people, and other animal species have shown that supplementing with omega-3s increased insulin sensitivity.

In addition, omega-3s may help boost the horse’s immune system by enhancing the functioning of immune cells. It may seem contradictory that a reduction in inflammation would also coincide with a boost in the immune system. However, research published in 2013 showed that DHA-rich fish oil enhanced the activity of white blood cells known as B cells in mice. Various other studies have also shown that omega-3s can increase the activation and number of T-cells (a lymphocyte that actively participates in the immune response). Since laminitic horses have immune system deficiencies that make it hard for the horse to recover and sets the laminitic horse up for secondary infections, any boost in immune function can be beneficial.

Omega-3 Molecules
EPA, DHA, and ALA are all different types of omega-3 molecules. They carry out different functions in the body.

Factors for Supplement Success

While research suggests omega-3 supplementation can make a difference for horses with laminitis, it is also important to consider the dose and source of the supplement.

Different omega-3 sources, such as flaxseed or fish oil, contain different types of omega-3 fatty acids. Plant-based sources of omega-3s contain only alpha-linolenic acid, also known as ALA. In the body, ALA is converted into longer-chain omega-3s, such as the EPA and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The conversion of ALA into its longer-chained relatives has been proven to be low — possibly as low as 8-10% for EPA and 4% for DHA. Therefore, supplementing with EPA and DHA directly is recommended, versus just relying on the consumption of ALA in the diet. This would explain why equine studies find that supplementing with a marine source of omega-3s, such as fish oil, is more effective than flaxseed meal.

The omega-3 dose you feed your horse can also make a difference. Research has found that the anti-inflammatory benefits of omega-3 supplementation is dose dependent, meaning you have to feed enough of the omega-3s to see results. While there are no specific studies on what the EPA/DHA dose for horses should be, research on humans have suggested that an intake of more than 2000 mg EPA+DHA/day is necessary to impact the inflammatory process and that more than 2700 mg of EPA/DHA is necessary to provide a pain relieving benefit. Since dose is typically correlated with weight, a horse struggling with inflammation would likely need more than 2700 mg EPA + DHA omega-3 daily.

Wellpride typically recommends horses with severe inflammation increase their daily dose to two ounces of Wellpride oil (15,000 mg EPA/DHA) daily for the first 6 to 8 weeks.

In Summary

Wellpride has heard stories from owners who have fed Wellpride fish oil to horses with hoof issues with great results. You can read the stories of Clark, Ally, and Sammy and hear first-hand from their owners what Wellpride has done for their horses’ hooves. Sammy’s story is particularly fascinating because the owner almost had to put him down due to hoof wall separation and abscessing. She credits Wellpride’s fish oil with saving her horse’s life.

While researchers work to identify causes of laminitis, as well as the most effective treatments, horse owners should do anything they can to help reduce the damage being done by the laminitic process. Feeding fish oil rich in both EPA and DHA to laminitic horse can do just that, as well as reduce the risk of healthy horses developing laminitis if fed as a preventative supplement.

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