Animal Health Foundation Promotes Laminitis Research

How Dr. Donald Walsh and the Animal Health Foundation have helped to promote and underwrite vital research on causes, and possible cures, for equine laminitis.
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How Dr. Donald Walsh and the Animal Health Foundation have helped to promote and underwrite vital research on causes, and possible cures, for equine laminitis.

Missouri veterinarian Donald Walsh heads a little-known charity called the Animal Health Foundation (AHF) whose donations to laminitis research have made it one of the world's most powerful players in the battle to find a cause and, ultimately, a cure for the disease. Laminitis is the sole concern of the organization, which has raised more than $600,000 in 20 years.

"We called it the animal health foundation because back in the mid-1980s we thought we'd cure laminitis in five years or so. And then we would move on to something else, maybe a disease in dogs," Dr. Walsh explains. "But there is still no answer to the question of how to reliably prevent or cure laminitis."

Researchers have, however, hammered home to Dr. Walsh the message that many cases of laminitis are totally preventable, and that some of his charity's time and energy should be spent educating owners about how mismanagement causes laminitis. And so Dr. Walsh finds himself becoming a public speaker, showing samples of hay, explaining how and when to use a grazing muzzle, and showing slides of diseased feet, obese horses and Styrofoam hoof pads. He listens as well, learning from horse owners what they do and do not know about the disease and horse care.

What makes the AHF different from other charities is that Dr. Walsh motivates the owners of foundered horses to get involved. They may donate $20 or $100 or much more, but each donation is accepted with equal gratitude.

"I believe that the money needed to find a cure for laminitis will come from the people most affected by the disease," Dr. Walsh says. "That means the ones who have seen it firsthand. No one makes it through caring for a horse with laminitis without being deeply affected."

Instead of wooing potential donors with galas and celebrities, Walsh asks donors to roll up their sleeves and work. They may build jumps (the AHF runs "Horse Shows for Horses" in the St. Louis area to raise money for laminitis research) or fold newsletters. AHF members are also its administrative staff, which means that 100 percent of donations go directly to research.

Much of the research regarded as "groundbreaking" in the field of laminitis--for instance the work of Drs. Chris Pollitt and Philip Johnson and crop scientist Katy Watts--has been partially funded by AHF. AHF purchased a powerful microscope for Dr. Pollitt of the Australian Equine Laminitis Research Unit. That microscope has produced images of the micro-architecture of the horse's hoof wall that have been seen and studied around the world.

The Animal Health Foundation recently completed an educational DVD about laminitis and its devastating effect on horses. It features research by Drs. Pollitt and Johnson, and by Katy Watts, and shows foundered horses in Dr. Walsh's hospital in Missouri. To learn more about the AHF, please visit www.animalhealthfoundation.com.

Fran Jurga is editor/publisher of Hoofcare & Lameness: Journal of Equine Foot Science and the website www.hoofcare.com. She is based in Ipswich, Mass.