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What is Arthritis in Horses?
Osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease, is a very common condition in horses of all ages and disciplines. Arthritis is the swelling or inflammation of a joint. Over time, if this condition becomes chronic, it can lead to damage and deterioration of the surrounding soft tissues, cartilage, and bone. This is a non-reversible and progressive disease process that is encountered more nowadays as horse lifespans are lengthening with quality healthcare. While there is no cure, there are many approaches to management that can help keep horses comfortable.
Causes of Arthritis in Horses
Arthritis can occur at any age, although older horses with long or athletic careers may be more prone due to heavier wear and tear on the joints. These horses are also more prone to trauma to or near a joint, which can encourage bony proliferation in the area. This leads to damage or compression of the joint capsule, and excessive force on the cartilage over time.
Poor conformation, such as upright hocks, can also predispose certain joints to develop osteoarthritis, from repeat compression and concussion.
Acute or septic arthritis can occur if an infection gets inside a joint capsule. This can be secondary to a puncture wound into a joint. Young foals can also get septic joints if they are very sick. High numbers of bacteria and white blood cells circulate through the entire body and take up residence in the joints. These joints will suddenly become very large, warm, and the foal may become non-weight-bearing on that limb.
How Veterinarians Diagnose Arthritis in Horses
If your horse seems sore or painful during exercise or warm-up, your veterinarian can perform a thorough lameness exam. This will include watching your horse walk, trot, and canter for a baseline, then perform flexed examinations. Flexed exams put a bit of stress on the joint of interest, and if the horse comes off limping, that indicates the joint is an area of pain/discomfort. Your vet may then perform a nerve or joint block to numb that area. If your horse then moves soundly, that confirms that area is what’s causing the lameness.
Once an area of concern is identified, your veterinarian will likely take radiographs of the joint to evaluate the level of involvement and bony changes present. In complex cases, advanced imaging such as MRI may be required.
Treatment of Arthritis in Horses
While there is no cure for this degenerative disease process, there are many ways to manage pain and lengthen the athletic career of your horse. In most cases, a multi-modal approach works best.
Daily exercise will help keep your horse active and comfortable. Being stall bound often increases stiffness.
Daily anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as Equioxx can be used long-term, whereas phenylbutazone can be used in acute situations or before more uncomfortable situations.
Intraarticular steroids or synthetic joint supplements may be given such as hyaluronic acid, or biologics such as PRP, IRAP, Prostride, and stem cells.
Systemic joint injectable support may be given such as Adequan® or Legend.
Alternative modalities such as shockwave, acupuncture, PEMF, and chiropractic work may help.
In some cases, surgical or chemical fusion of joints may be recommended to speed up the arthritic process, as fusion is the most painful part for horses. Once the joint has fused, motion may be limited, but there is less pain associated.
Recovery and Management of Arthritis in Horses
In acute or septic arthritis cases, repeat joint flushes and systemic antibiotics will help clear the infection and hopefully prevent long-term joint damage.
A daily exercise regimen tailored for your horse, if they’re comfortable, will help promote joint mobility. For horses still in work—long, thorough warm-up and cool-down sessions are very important to prevent discomfort during exercise.
Regular examinations with your veterinarian will help evolve your horse’s arthritic maintenance as they continue to work and age. As the disease progresses, treatment will likely become more involved and intense to manage worsening changes and help your horse maintain their workload.
Prevention of Arthritis in Horses
Have your horse on an appropriate trim/shoeing schedule. If there are any congenital or conformational abnormalities to the hoof shape or growth, they need to be managed therapeutically. Any problem with the foot can travel up the limb and cause secondary stress on other joints.
Arthritis supplements can help promote healthy joint fluid and protect joint cartilage before damage starts to occur, prolonging the life of the joints.
Avoid overuse and excessively hard, demanding work for your horse. This will also improve the longevity of your horse’s career.
Arthritis in Horses FAQs
What are the signs of arthritis in horses?
Common signs include being stiff at the beginning of a workout, swelling, heat around the joints, or pain/lameness.
Can a horse with arthritis still be ridden?
Yes! If the arthritis is not debilitating or painful, controlled exercise can actually be healthy for your horse. In addition to some of the above treatment approaches, a long-warm up and cool-down will help promote joint mobility. Always discuss appropriate workout programs with your veterinarian when being evaluated for arthritis.
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