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CPL (Chronic Progressive Lymphedema) in horses: symptoms and treatment

Large (draft) breeds of horses are sensitive to CPL (Chronic progressive lymphedema). This incurable condition may be partly genetic and affects the lymphatic system and the elastic function of the skin. Characteristic are the thick ridges on the legs of the horse. Read on this page what CPL is exactly and if you can do something against it.

What is CPL?

CPL occurs in the horse’s legs, mainly the lower legs. The lymphatic vessels of horses with CPL no longer work properly because there is too little elastin in the tissues. As a result, moisture accumulates in the lower legs and the legs become thick and the characteristic ridges are formed. Studies show that the fluid not only accumulates, but that the flow of blood and fluid is also much slower. Desmosine (amino acid) is responsible for the elasticity of the fibers. Horses that get CPL often have a low amount of desmosine in the beginning, but a lot of desmosine is released over the years. This changes the elastin network and becomes an abnormal network, causing lymph fluid to spread more and more in the leg.

CPL is incurable, the only thing you can do as an owner is treat the symptoms.

The symptoms of CPL

CPL can be recognized by the characteristic folds/ridges on the lower legs of horses. Often at a young age of the horse (younger than 2 years) it is already visible that the horse has CPL, then the first wrinkle usually develops in the pastern cavity. CPL often starts low on the leg (under the bullet) with flakes, cuts, a ridge and fluid in the legs. It is often difficult to see these first signals because often the horses have a lot of feathers. The older the horse gets, the worse the ridges get. The ridges create breeding grounds between the skin folds where fungi, bacteria and/or mites can house well. This causes itching that makes the horse stomp and grind and which causes more and more wounds that also cause irritation. The complaints are often worse on the back legs than on the front legs.

The long-lasting edema (fluid retention) makes the skin thicker and firmer. This also gives more wounds and can even cause pain and lameness. When CPL gets out of hand, severe painful deformities, a proliferation of bumps and bacterial infections can develop. In the summer there are sometimes maggots between the folds of horses with CPL. Therefore, check your horse’s lower legs weekly.

Treatment of CPL

Because CPL is incurable, you can only treat the symptoms and try to slow down the CPL. The following points are important in CPL

  • Note the diet: A horse’s feed with CPL should be low in sugar and starch.
  • Wound treatment: Between the folds easily wounds/mud fever will arrise that can infect. For that reason, it is recommended to shave the feathers off completely so that the legs can be properly treated.
  • Prevent mites: Horses with CPL are more susceptible to mites. Mites thrive in the sweltering climate between the folds. Prevention is better than cure, so do regular preventive treatment against mites. Preferably on a natural basis.
  • Stimulate moisture removal: Certain herbs can stimulate moisture removal (for example cleavers and nettle), which will reduce the accumulation in the legs. But lymph drainage treatment can also help with this.
  • Movement: Of course, being able to move a lot is a must for a horse with CPL, because movement stimulates the moisture-transporting capacity and improves the blood circulation. 24/7 in a paddock paradise setting is perfect for cpl horses.
  • Improve blood flow: by stimulating blood flow you also stimulate the removal of excess moisture.

Heredity is the cause of CPL in horses

The exact cause of CPL is not yet fully understood. Malfunctioning lymph vessels and abnormal elastin levels in the skin play a role. Heredity is also expected to play a role. Unfortunately, there is no genetic test available for CPL to show whether CPL is hereditary. This suspicion is there because certain bloodlines are more affected than others. CPL mainly occurs in the large sober breeds such as: Belgians, Shires, Frisians, Tinkers, etc. More research into CPL is needed to find out exactly how it works.

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