Arthritis is an unfortunately common condition among people and animals alike, and horses are no exception. It's a degenerative disease that causes joint damage and discomfort. Knowing the signs and causes can help lower your chances of developing arthritis and reduce the severity of it after diagnosis.
What Is Arthritis In Horses?
Arthritis goes by many names; degenerative joint disease, joint inflammation, osteoarthritis, and so on. All of these are names for essentially the same thing, though they may denote slight variations in symptoms or causes. Arthritis is the result of inflammation around an individual's joints. It can cause pain and discomfort when trying to move, along with a creaky feeling that isn't pleasant for anyone. Arthritis symptoms can vary in severity depending on the weather, and it typically gets worse as the sufferer ages.
While you may think of arthritis as being a uniquely human disease, it can affect all sorts of animals as well, including dogs, cats, and yes, even arthritis in horses. A major factor that plays into the development of arthritis is stress on joints, which can be a result of overexercising and overbearing weight. Since horses are both large animals and extremely athletic animals, arthritis is exceptionally common among them, even during their early years.
If your horse has arthritis, there's both good news and bad news. The bad news is that since arthritis is the result of physical damage to your horse's joints, it is currently impossible to cure. Once your horse develops arthritis, they will have it for the rest of their life. The good news, though, is that since it is such a common condition among horses, there are a plethora of treatment methods available. So even if your horse does begin showing signs of arthritis, there are plenty of ways to ease their pain and help them live a comfortable and normal life.
What Causes Arthritis In Horses?
Arthritis is the result of damage to your horse's joints - meaning that the exact cause is non-specific. There's no singular thing that causes arthritis. Instead, it's usually the result of a handful of factors, some that you may be able to control as an owner, and others that are simply beyond prevention. One of the most common causes of arthritis in horses is joint strain. While you may not think of your horse being very delicate, the inner workings of their joints are a sensitive construction.
The sheer size and weight of a horse's natural mass takes a toll on the cartilage, fluids, ligaments, and bones that compose their joints. The cartilage in your horse's joints acts a cushion, allowing the two bones forming the joint to glide around one another smoothly. Over time, though, your horse's natural body weight can steadily erode this cartilage.
Other factors like birth defects, obesity, certain organ diseases, and so on can contribute to the damage that occurs on your horse's joints. While you may not see symptoms of arthritis immediately following these conditions, years of damage adds up. And like a domino effect, each of these problems tends to lead into one another, creating a cascade of joint damage.
Exercise is an important and vital component of your horse's day to day routine. They're athletic animals, and it's necessary for them to exercise if they're going to remain physically and emotionally healthy. That said, exercise does have its downsides, and one of them is that it takes a toll on your horse's joints. Casual motion - like grazing on hay, meandering around a pasture, and walking a perimeter - are all extremely gentle on your horse's joints. None of these activities is going to cause excessive strain.
Exercise, on the other hand, is just the opposite. Exercise not only causes a horse's joints to undergo serious movement and strain but if demanding enough, it can cause inflammation of the joints. Now, it's important to understand that inflammation is usually a good thing in your horse's body. It's a reaction of the immune system that promotes healing.
In the case of joints, however, inflammation can be a damaging reaction. It causes the synovial fluid in your horse's joints - responsible for keeping the joints intact - to breakdown and turn watery, rather than it's typical syrup-like consistency. This reduces the amount of protection that the joints have, leading to more damage down the road. The breakdown of synovial fluid is one of the first stages of arthritis development.
That certainly isn't to say that you shouldn't allow or encourage your horses to exercise; it's still an essential and important aspect of your horse's health. Just bear in mind that excessive and intense exercise, without breaks, can lead to significant damage in the long term.
Symptoms Of Arthritis In Horses
Even though arthritis is a lifelong condition, its progression can be slowed with early treatment. The problem is, however, that the signs of arthritis can be difficult to pick up on. This is especially true in horses since they don't let the symptoms affect them as much until later on. Early arthritis will likely look like general stiffness or discomfort in your horse that they can work themselves out of. While it may seem like a good thing that they can manage the early symptoms, it usually reduces the chances that an owner will seek a diagnosis.
Aside from stiffness, arthritis can also appear as inflammation around your horse's joints. Inflamed joints will be swollen and warm to the touch, and you may even notice that your horse is uncomfortable when you apply gentle pressure to these joints. You might also notice that your horse's gait, stride, and general movements differ from their norm. This is them adjusting to the new pain and discomfort that comes along with arthritis.
In its later stages, arthritis will continue to have a worsening effect on your horse's ability and willingness to move. You may notice that they don't want to run, give up during running, stutter in their gallop, and so on. They may be less than eager to do tasks that at one point had been easy for them. At an extreme, they may even become lame.
Diagnosing Arthritis In Horses
If you suspect that your horse may have arthritis, no matter how minor the signs may seem, don't hesitate to take them to a vet. The sooner the issue is treated, the less of an impact it will have on them in the long run. Once you have taken your horse to a veterinarian, the first thing they will do is a physical examination of the affected joints. This will involve looking for the typical symptoms of arthritis, including inflammation, pain/discomfort, and stiffness.
One of the ways that vets pinpoint arthritic joints is through a flexion test. A flexion test is where the vet holds a horse's joint in a flexed position for around a minute and then asks the horse to trot immediately afterward. If the horse refuses or clearly exhibits pain in the flexed joint, then it is likely arthritis. This is then repeated for each of the horse's joints.
Your vet will also work to build a portfolio of your horse's physical history, so it's important that you come prepared to answer a wide variety of questions pertaining to your horse's health. These questions will include things like workload, exercise intensity, sports your horse may compete in, and so on. All of this will help them determine how likely your horse is to have arthritis. This, combined with the physical examination, will also help the vet pinpoint all of the affected areas.
Types Of Arthritis In Horses
Osteoarthritis - also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD) - is the common form of arthritis, and it is caused by wear and tear on your horse's joints. Weight gain, over-exercise, and overuse can all lead to the development of osteoarthritis. DJD can also be the result of genetic defects that prevent the cartilage in joints from developing properly. In these circumstances, it's not unlikely for a horse to develop arthritis extremely early on.
Infectious arthritis - sometimes called septic arthritis - is the result of damage done to joints by a bacterial infection. It occurs when another part of the body - like the intestines, stomach, or urinary tract - become infected. This infection triggers a natural inflammatory response, which can effectively combat the spread of the infection. However, sometimes this inflammatory response is also activated in a horse's joints, leading to the early stages of arthritis.
This response isn't an instant guarantee that a horse will come down with arthritis, but if a horse is already predisposed to arthritis, or experiences multiple/severe cases of infectious arthritis, it can mature into fully-fledged arthritis.
Traumatic arthritis is the result of severe injuries to your horse's joints. This includes things like falling, landing improperly from a jump, stepping into a hole unexpectedly, and so on. These incidents can cause unexpected and lasting damage to a joint, leading to the development of arthritis.
Treatment For Horses With Arthritis
It's important to understand that arthritis is a permanent physical condition that cannot currently be cured, only treated. If your horse has arthritis, then it is something they will have to manage for the remainder of their lives. Medications and therapy are almost always a part of a horse's arthritis treatment. The goal of each of these is two-fold. First, to reduce and prevent inflammation.
Inflammation causes and is caused by arthritis, creating a vicious cycle. So getting it under control is a crucial step to preventing the advancement of your horse's arthritis.
The second goal of arthritis therapy and medications is to reduce the pain levels of arthritis. The more arthritis progresses, the more painful it will be for a horse. While a horse can power through the pain and discomfort of arthritis in its early stages, it can be debilitating down the road.
Your vet will work with you to come up with the most effective arthritis treatment for your horse. How you go about treating your horse's arthritis depends on the kind of arthritis they have and the severity.
Osteoarthritis is usually treated through NSAIDs and possibly physical therapy. Infectious arthritis can be treated by treating the infection, which will usually mean antibiotics and pain relievers. Trauma-related arthritis is treated by treating the injury as soon as possible. This includes things like physical therapy, placing ice packs on the injury, and using anti-inflammatories.
Medications for Equine Arthritis
The most common form of medications that will be given to a horse with arthritis are NSAIDS, which is an acronym for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. NSAIDS inhibit the prostaglandin synthesis, the mediators of inflammation.
The problem with these medications is that they can also suppress other functions that are vital to your horse's system, like enzyme production. While it can treat arthritis, it can also create other health problems for your horse in the long term, making it a less than ideal solution, especially in younger horses.
These medications can also damage the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, leading to things like stomach ulcers. It is for these reasons that these kinds of prescriptions are currently being recommended less and less to people as well as animals. If your horse is at the end of their life, or if they are only experiencing a temporary arthritic flare up, then NSAIDs are not a terrible treatment option. If you're going to be using them on a regular basis for years upon years, though, then it might be worth talking to your vet about other options.
That said, you should never completely disregard a vet's advice. If, after speaking with them about alternatives, they still believe that NSAIDs are the best option, then you should follow their advice.
Supplements for Equine Arthritis
If you and your vet are considering alternatives to traditional arthritis medications, supplements can be a great way to go! They're all-natural options that have minimal side effects on your animal while still having similar effectiveness to prescription medications.
CBD is becoming increasingly popular as a supplement that can treat a broad variety of issues. It's naturally anti-inflammatory, making it a great choice for reducing the advance of arthritis in a horse. CBD for horses is a natural compound found in hemp that stimulates your horse's ECS system. This system is responsible for regulating things like sleep, appetite, mood, pain, and the immune system.
Glucosamine is another popular supplement when it comes to treating arthritis. Glucosamine is found throughout the body, in soft tissue areas like ligaments and tendons. It helps to produce more joint fluid, which slows down the progress of arthritic damage.
In your horse's joints - in all of our joints, in fact - is a fluid known as synovial fluid. This fluid acts as the lubricant between a horse's joints, facilitating smooth and comfortable motion. It also prevents the two parts of a joint from grinding into one another, causing pain and permanent damage. The reason inflammation is so damaging is because it causes the naturally thick synovial fluid to break down and become watery, reducing its effectiveness.
Hyaluronic acid is a fluid that can be used in place of synovial fluid. It's administered through an injection into the affected joint. It's still a fairly new practice, however, and it doesn't always yield the desired results. Still, if you're looking for an alternative to NSAIDs, it's a promising route to try.
The Importance of Diet
Aside from prescription medications, one of the most effective ways you can help your horse manage an arthritis diagnosis is by keeping their diet in check.
The reason is two-fold. For one thing - as we've already discussed - being overweight worsens the symptoms of arthritis and causes it to advance faster. The extra strain put on a horse's joints due to being overweight amplifies arthritis.
And the second reason is that horses with arthritis have a tendency to put on more weight than normal. This is because arthritis - being a painful and uncomfortable condition - makes your horse reluctant to move and exercise. As a result, they end up not getting the proper amount of exercise, leading to weight gain - a compound effect.
It's also not recommended that you exercise a horse with arthritis too much (though some exercise is always good) because you could accidentally worsen the condition. So, how do you fight weight gain without exercise? Diet.
When trying to come up with a healthy diet for an arthritic horse, the best person to consult is your horse's veterinarian. Healthy diets for arthritic horses usually include plenty of omega-3 fatty acids due to their natural anti-inflammatory properties. Omega-6 fatty acids, on the other hand, are pro-inflammatory, so it's good to cut back on these where possible. Joint supplements and Vitamin E are also solid nutrients, as they keep your horse's immune system in harmony. Consider checking our Equine Hemp PCR - CBD Oil for Horses and 1500mg CBD Oil for Horses.
Managing A Horse With Equine Arthritis
Once your horse develops arthritis, it is a condition they will have for the rest of their lives. So, it's important that after your horse is diagnosed with arthritis, that you take an active role in keeping the condition under control. As mentioned, one of the best ways to do this is through a strict diet and weight management. Keeping your horse at a healthy weight level will prevent the spread of their arthritis and make the rest of their life with the condition exponentially more bearable.
Next, while your horse may not like it, they need to keep moving. Rigorous exercise isn't recommended, but casual exercise on a daily basis is important. If you give in to your horse's unwillingness to exercise, they could end up with atrophying muscles and an increased potential for weight gain. Exercise also improves circulation, which removes waste from their joints and reduces stiffness.
Just be sure to keep things slow, and make sure that they don't accidentally step into holes or climb difficult surfaces. It's also important to warm your horse up before exercising, as it helps keep them loose and mobile during workouts.
It's also important to keep up with your horse's regular maintenance more so than ever. You'll need to meet with your vet after an arthritis diagnosis regularly to ensure that it isn't advancing abnormally fast and that their current diet and exercise plan are still up to date.
And make sure that your horse is wearing the proper hoof wear, as improper protection could cause more problems than it solves. Keeping their hooves trimmed is also important, as it allows them to maintain balance, preventing twists and trips.
Preventing Equine Arthritis
It's not possible to completely prevent the chances that your horse will develop equine arthritis. There are a lot of factors that can lead to arthritis, some of them genetic. So your control over the situation is limited to a certain extent.
That said, there are measures you can take to reduce the chances that your horse will become arthritic. While it may sound like we're beating a dead - um, you know - unhealthy weight is a strong predictor of arthritis development. Keeping your horse healthy and in shape throughout their life will greatly reduce their risk of developing arthritis.
Most of the advice for preventing arthritis is similar to the advice for managing it once it's developed. Keep exercise a normal part of your horse's routine, but make sure that it's never too intense or damaging. Always keep a horse properly maintained, using proper gear, getting regular hoof trims, and so on.
You can also reduce a horse's chances of arthritis development by preventing injuries. This means keeping them on safe and even surfaces, sticking to trusted trails, and so on. If your horse does happen to get injured, seek treatment as soon as possible, since putting it off could lead to an increased chance of traumatic arthritis.
Dr. Ivana Vukasinovic
Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, University of Belgrade
Ivana Vukasinovic grew up in Serbia and attended the University of Belgrade where she received a degree in Veterinary medicine in 2012 and later completed surgical residency working mostly with livestock. Her first year of practice was split between busy small animal practice and emergency clinic, and after two more years of treating many different species of animals, she opened her own veterinary pharmacy where an interest in canine and feline nutrition emerged with an accent on fighting animal obesity. In her free time, she acts as a foster parent for stray animals before their adoption, likes to read SF books and making salted caramel cookies.
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