The Pain is Real – Coping with Arthritis in Horses
What is arthritis
Arthritis, also known as Osteoarthritis (OA) or Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD), is a disease that creates pain and inflammation in a horse’s joint.
Arthritis is a progressive disease where the cartilage in the joint is slowly degraded or worn away. As the cartilage wears, it exposes bone and nerve endings, becoming extremely painful and inflamed and leading to symptoms such as lameness, joint swelling and general discomfort. Unfortunately, arthritis is a chronic disease that cannot be cured, so management is key, and the earlier we intervene, the better the outcome is for the horse.
The cause of arthritis in horses includes injuries to the joint, age (progressive wear), or infection. With the arthritis caused by injury, the symptoms of arthritis may become visible long after the initial cause. It is not a stretch to say that every horse that has lead an active life is going to develop some form of arthritis if they live past middle age.
The earlier we intervene, the better the prognosis is for our horses.
How can you tell if your horse has arthritis?
If your horse has been in some level of work, or had an injury, or over the age of 18, it is likely your horse has arthritis.
You can monitor for symptoms such as:
- Favouring a limb or side, even if there is weight bearing
- Lameness and limping
- Swelling in the joint
- Intermittent tenderness in the joint
The only accurate way to diagnose arthritis is via a radiograph (x-ray), however most vets can identify the potential diagnosis of arthritis via clinical history and examination.
How can we reduce the likelihood of a horse developing arthritis?
While there is no evidence that we can prevent arthritis, there are steps we can take to reduce or delay the onset arthritis in our horses. And it starts as soon as they are born.
In young foals and weanlings, the correct nutrition can actually impact the potential for OA to develop. A diet that is in excess or limited in selected nutrients, including total calories, can misbalance the ratio at which the body forms its bones, cartilage and muscles, thus increasing the risk of joint issues. Restricted exercise can also unbalance the musculoskeletal development.
Younger horses, from 2-5 years, should not be started under saddle until they are physically mature. Once started, the process should be gradual to allow for correct skeletal and muscular development – no matter how fast they respond to the work.
In mature horses we should ensure that we work their bodies in balance, ensure they have correct training to cope with the physical burden of a rider – and ensure our riding is balanced also. It is also a good idea to keep your horses’ body condition score between 4-6.
In our older horses, it may seem counter-intuitive but exercise really does help reduce arthritis or the symptoms.
Other things you can do that could help reduce the risk of arthritis developing include:
- Correct physical conditioning through training
- Ensure proper farrier care is taken through all stages of life
- Allow periods of rest when exercising and developing your horse – a pause in training will often do more good than harm
- Identify potential causes for injury and be proactive about post-injury arthritis management
- Keep an ideal body weight and condition to keep lean muscle mass, especially in older horses
My horse has arthritis- what can I do?
There are multiple options for managing arthritis in your horse. Remember, the aim here is to reduce the pain of arthritis while slowing the progression, as unfortunately there is no cure.
Non-steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAID’s): Your vet may prescribe these to provide short term pain relief for both mild but more usually severe pain associated with arthritis. These drugs reduce inflammation but must be prescribed and should be used with caution as they may have side effects when used long term, such as upsetting the gut lining or impacting on major organs. Discuss the use of these with your vet as options.
Corticosteriod injections: These injections aren’t used frequently as they can have many negative side effects, but your vet may use these intermittently to dramatically reduce the inflammation in the joint and give other solutions, such as nutraceuticals and exercise, a chance to impact. These can only be administered by your veterinarian.
Pentosan Polysulphate Sodium (PPS): Studies have shown therapeutic levels in synovial fluid (the fluid that helps reduce friction in the joints) following intramuscular injections. These injections are delivered once weekly in a series of 4 injections, and on occasion the injection may be administered directly into the joint. There are fewer side effects with PPS but should be used in caution with other medications, and always under veterinary supervision.
Nutraceuticals: There are many oral nutraceuticals on the market. Some contain glucosamine or chondrotin, which are essential building blocks of healthy cartilage, and there are many other products with a range of natural or herbal extracts that may have benefits to arthritic joints in horses. Some nutraceuticals may help improve synovial fluid output, some may reduce inflammation and swelling. Unfortunately, not all supplements are created equal, nor do they have to have studies to prove their efficacy (or in some cases that do have studies, they may not be on horses). Speak to your vet about your best options rather than wasting your money on 4-5 different options. And note – what works for one horse may not work for the next. (If you want me to do some research on the strength of efficacy of studies of any nutraceuticals you are using or interested in, please comment below!)
Acupuncture, acupressure and light therapy: These are therapies that, from a number of horse owners, seems to have some benefit. I am not aware of any studies but from personal experience feel these are great options if they are available to you.
Exercise: gentle exercises that help to stretch the limb and move the affected joint without too much pressure are crucial for long term health of the muscle and reduction of pain. In actual fact, running through the dressage training scale from the very foundations is a great way to realign muscular development that can help support painful joints. Your horse will let you know when they have reached their maximum movement capabilities.
Hydrotherapy and swimming are also great exercises that allow your horse to perform a range of motions without having to weight bear. A limb that is toned with strong muscle is more likely to have good blood flow and therefore more impact from medications and supplements, as opposed to a limb that has muscle atrophy.
Chiropractic sessions: While your chiropractor can not work miracles by reversing the arthritis already developed, they are crucial to help ensure that any movement abnormalities (that occur due to the pain in one or more limbs) don’t become a permanent change to their conformation, to reduce the likelihood of muscular atrophy and also reduce the damage to non-arthritic limbs.
Would you like to share your experience with arthritis in horses or ask a question? Comment below!