Arthritis in the horse can take on many names and forms. It is most often referred to as Osteoarthritis (OA) or Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD). It is often a chronic disease, with has been present for substantial period of time, and often gets worse as time goes along.
Arthritis is not only painful for the horse, but it also affects the way the horse moves.
OA and DJD can affect the joint itself, or the surroundings of the joint. There is cartilage within joints that provides cushioning support and a smooth surface allowing the joint to move in a fluid motion. DJD and such conditions wear away this cartilage, making the movement of the joint less fluid and more painful for the horse. There are also situations where the bone on either side of the joint develops “spurs” or “sharp edges” – these can pinch on the joint space or even rub on soft tissue structures (such as tendons) causing a lot of pain to the horse.
Commonly, OA or DJD are seen by owners in variable ways. It may be that your horse is less reluctant to go forward, or downhill. Maybe his gait has changed and he can no longer canter smoothly on one leg, or bring his hind legs up under him. You may even notice swelling on certain joints, or pain when you pick up his feet. Horses show pain and discomfort in many ways, and often changes to their behaviour or gait are best discussed with your veterinarian.
…..“Fez seems a bit stiff all over – it’s really noticeable when I ride her. It’s like she can’t move her legs properly, and seems really reluctant to move. I know she’s an older lady, but she is in good health and I want to keep her going. She used to love going for rides so much!”….
Often, if OA/DJD are suspected your veterinarian will recommend x-rays of one or more joints. This helps us develop a plan of the best way to treat the individual horse.
Each horse develops OA/DJD in slightly different ways, and we as veterinarians like to tailor a treatment plan specific for your horse. X-rays allow us to know how each joint is affected, and how badly, so we can tell you all your options and discuss your horses’ prognosis.
….”We have done Fez’s x-rays and found she has some significant arthritis in one of her hock joints, however there are minor changes through a lot of her other joints as well”….
Once OA/DJD has been diagnosed, the next step is management.
There is no cure for these conditions – the best chance for your horse is successful management.
The management of your horses arthritis depends on several factors;
– the extent of the disease – “which joints, how many joints, how badly…”
– the workload of the horse – “hacking, eventing or paddock companion…”
– any other compounding problems – “conformation, hooves, injuries in other areas…”
– the financial budget of the client
Once we know all these factors we can tailor a plan to suit your horse.
What are my options?
If only one joint is affected, often times your veterinarian will recommend an injection into the joint.
This injection is often a steroid or steroid-combination. A steroid is a very potent anti-inflammatory drug, which helps to alleviate the pain associated with the arthritis in the effected joint.
By alleviating the pain, you aim to get the horse to use the joint as per normal.
….”We recommend doing a steroid injection into the hock joint that is worse affected on Fez”….
A joint injection is known as an aspectic procedure – that is that your veterinarian will aim to be as sterile as possible when performing the injection. This means your horses joint will be clipped, scrubbed and prepared much like a surgical site. Your veterinarian will be wearing gloves and be as clean as possible when injecting into the required joints.
Joint injections are not without risk, but your veterinarian will discuss the procedure with you in more detail at the time.
Some horses only require a one-off joint injection, some require it to be repeated down the track. This is very horse dependent, but often times owners see great improvement with joint injections.
Disease Modifying Osteoarthritis Drugs (DMOADs)
An example of this type of medication is Cartrophen.
These medications target the disease of OA/DJD on several different levels, aiming to alleviate the pain from the disease and minimise its progression. These medications aim to rebuild the cartilage within the affected joints and increase the amount of joint fluid, trying to recreate the fluid, pain-free motion of the joint.
The advantage to these types of medications is that it treats all the joints with one injection. The injections are administered into the muscle of the horse, and the drug localises in all the affected joints.
…”…as Fez seems a little stiff all over we suspect she will have arthritic changes in a few other joints. The best way to target these following her joint injection would be with a Cartrophen course. That way, we can treat multiple joints, get her out of pain, and hope to get her loving her rides again…”
The medication itself is a very effective anti-inflammatory, so it provides pain relief as well as improving the health of the joint. This means we hope to have your pain free and continuing with work, without other medications.
These injections are given as short courses (4 weeks) and repeated based on your horses condition.
Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs)
The most common of this type of medication is Phenylbutazone (Bute).
These are anti-inflammatory medications, often given in the form of a powder.
They act by trying to relieve the pain and swelling caused by OA/DJD. They are much like a human taking Ibuprofen and such medication.
….”For the time being we can give her a course of Danilon and see how her lameness and stiffness improves. If she improves a lot, as we suspect she will, then we can move onto better long term management of her through joint injections and cartrophen”…
These types of medication often work very well to keep your horse comfortable and as mobile as possible. Although they are known to affect some organs of yours horses body, such as stomach, kidneys and liver with long-term use. It is also a controlled medication, meaning your veterinarian needs to be aware of the usage. This is the reason why your veterinarian will be required to do regular check-ups to ensure your horse or pony is managing well on these medications, especially if they intend to be on it for months or years.
Oral Joint Supplements
There are many joint supplements on the market targeted to help with arthritis.
Unfortunately, it can all be a bit “hit and miss” with effectiveness and you can often spend lots of money on these products, and get substandard results. This is often due to the products bio-availability. This refers to the “amount” of usable product the horses body can actually absorb. What this means is, just because your horse is eating it, doesn’t mean his body can use it. So worst case scenario he is just pooing or peeing out the supplement.
For example – some studies have shown that a horse is only able to absorb around 6% of the glucosamine that an oral joint supplement can provide.
There are many clinical studies being done on the effectiveness of joint supplements, so the news is ever changing!
There are joint supplements that have been manufactured in a way to ensure their product is effective and available to the horse. Unfortunately, there are so many products available on the shelf these days that the topic can be a bit of a mine field. Our best suggestion is to make sure you do your homework on a product, and consider bioavailabilty and the production of the product to ensure you are not wasting your precious dollars.
The vets here at Simply Horses
Of course there are certainly other options and areas to consider when it comes to owning a horse with arthritis. We have only touched on a few of the biggest options available to you as a horse owner.
Any of our veterinarians would be happy to discuss your horses case, and discuss in further detail which options would be best for you and your equine.