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Arthritis in Horses

Close up of veterinarian holding a horse's arthritic leg

Does your horse seem stiff? Does their gait seem uneven, and are they reluctant to do activities that once came naturally?

It might be arthritis, which is responsible for up to 60% of all lameness in horses.

Though most often seen in horses over age 15 due to normal wear and tear, arthritis can affect horses of any age, breed, and activity level.

Why Does My Horse Have Arthritis?

Arthritis is not a disease. It's a general term that describes joint inflammation, which can be due to several underlying causes.

Degenerative joint disease (DJD), also known as osteoarthritis, the gradual deterioration of the cartilage in your horse's joints, is typically caused by old age. Though it can't be cured, the progression can be slowed down, and your horse's symptoms can be managed so they may live comfortably and even continue to be ridden after diagnosis.

Traumatic arthritis is caused by an injury near or at the joint, such as a sprain, meniscal tear, or even consistent stress from riding. This is more common in athletic horses, and can occur before their senior years. If the underlying injury is discovered and treated early, you can prevent further damage to the joint.

Septic arthritis is inflammation around the joint caused by an infection. In foals, it's typically caused by bacteria that have traveled through the bloodstream from another part of the body. Septic arthritis can also occur through the invasion of bacteria through a wound near the affected joint. It can be life-threatening and difficult to treat as it progresses, so it's crucial that you have your horse treated as soon as possible.

Diagnosis For Horses With Arthritis

Even if you're pretty sure that your horse has arthritis, you'll need to work with your vet to find out exactly which joints are affected, how their condition has progressed, and what your treatment options might be.

Your vet will typically begin to diagnose your horse by observing their gait.

Then, they may conduct a hands-on physical examination to check for swelling, warmth, and tenderness at the affected joints.

If your vet is unsure of which joint has been affected, they may do a nerve block test, anesthetizing one joint at a time until their symptoms temporarily improve.

Your vet may use x-rays, ultrasounds, arthroscopy, and other tests to collect more information about the condition of your horse's joints.

Balancing Exercise And Rest For Horses With Arthritis

Light to moderate exercise is typically recommended for horses with arthritis, depending on the severity of their symptoms. Exercise can help keep your horse flexible, manage their weight, and increase their circulation, as well as keep them from suffering from boredom and depression.

With your vet's guidance, you may still be able to ride your horse, though you'll want to make some accommodations. Allow for longer warm up and cool down periods, and consider adding stretches and massages to your routine.

Joint Supplements For Horses With Arthritis

Oral supplements have been shown to help alleviate symptoms, reduce inflammation, and even control the progression of arthritis.

Joint supplements contain ingredients like glucosamine, chondroitin, hyaluronic acid (HA), and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM). Grizzly Joint Aid is a good source of all four.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also recommended to help control inflammation. Omega-3s can be found in flaxseed or The Missing Link Well Blend & Joint.

Medication For Horses With Arthritis

Your vet may prescribe NSAIDs to help manage your horse's pain. Phenylbutazone is one of the most commonly prescribed drugs for equine arthritis, and it comes in tablets, oral paste, and as an injection.

Steroid shots, such as Adequan i.m., are another treatment option. Adequan helps protect your horse's joints from further damage, repairs joint cartilage, and reduces inflammation. It is administered as an injection at the infected joint every 4 days for 7 treatments, spanning a total of 28 days.

A correct diagnosis is essential before starting any treatment, even oral supplements. Talk to your vet as soon as you notice even subtle signs of lameness in your horse. Early treatment is critical to reducing strain on your horse's joints caused by inflammation.