Treatment Options For Arthritis In Horses
Arthritis is a common problem in horses that can cause significant pain and lameness. But fortunately, there are many treatment options available. The best treatment choice for your horse depends on the severity of the arthritis and the horse’s individual needs.
In this article, we discuss the most common treatments for horse arthritis, including PEMF therapy, massage, supplements, and more, and explain how they work to promote comfort and wellness.
We also answer some frequently asked questions about horse arthritis and treatments.
The Arthritic Horse
Arthritis is a general term used to describe inflammation of the joints. It is a pervasive problem in horses, especially as they age. It’s even expected among many senior performance horses due to the strenuous demands placed on their bodies.
However, just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s not painful or shouldn’t be treated. Arthritis can cause significant pain and lameness, affecting a horse’s everyday life and making it difficult for them to perform at their best.
Potential causes of arthritis include:
- Joint injuries
- Immune-mediated disease
- Degenerative Joint Disease (osteoarthritis)
As you can see, there are several possible causes of arthritis. But the most common cause for equines is Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD). DJD is even more likely than trauma to lead to long-term joint inflammation and mobility issues in many horses.
What is Degenerative Joint Disease?
DJD is a progressive condition that affects the cartilage in the joints, causing it to wear down. It’s also called osteoarthritis. As the cartilage breaks down, the bones begin to rub against each other, causing chronic pain and inflammation.
Signs of DJD include weight loss, tenderness, swelling, joint pain and stiffness, and lameness that improves with gentle exercise. (See the new Sascotec Elite Trainer.) As the disease progresses, the horse may experience pain even at rest.
That said, the pain and inflammation associated with this degenerative disease typically don’t appear until the cartilage has already been significantly damaged. This is why DJD is often referred to as a “silent disease,” at least in its early stages.
On the other hand, acute arthritis often rears its head immediately, causing discomfort straight away.
What’s the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Arthritis?
Arthritis may be either acute or chronic. Acute arthritis is a sudden onset of symptoms, usually due to an injury or infection. Chronic arthritis, like DJD, is a long-term condition that gradually worsens over time. It is usually a product of wear-and-tear over many years.
Both injury and infection can cause acute arthritis that eventually becomes chronic arthritis due to cartilage damage or changes to the bone.
Signs of Joint Inflammation and Arthritis in Horses
The most common signs of arthritis are joint stiffness, lameness, reluctance to move, and diminished performance.
Other signs include:
- Muscle wasting
- Decreased range of motion
- Visible swelling due to increased joint fluid
- Behavioural changes (e.g., unwillingness to exercise, irritability)
If you think your horse may be showing signs of arthritis, it is critical to contact your veterinarian for a diagnosis. Arthritis only worsens with time, and prompt care can help prevent or slow the progression of joint deterioration.
Quick treatment for both chronic and acute arthritis ensures your horse experiences as little pain as possible while giving the best chance of a good outcome.
How is Arthritis Diagnosed in Horses?
There are several ways to diagnose arthritis in horses. The standard method, at least initially, is a diagnosis by physical examination and flexion tests, which will assess the horse’s joint function and range of motion.
The vet will look for joint pain, inflammatory response or heat, and signs of injury or discomfort. During this initial examination, the vet typically also checks for lameness by watching as the horse moves either under saddle or on a lunge line.
The physical exam is typically followed by further testing to confirm joint problems.
The diagnostic process may include:
- Joint radiographs
- CT scan or MRI
- Blood tests
- Synovial fluid analysis
These and other diagnostic methods may be used to confirm the presence of arthritis and rule out other conditions.
Horse Arthritis Treatment: The Best Options Available
Horse owners can use a range of therapeutic options or medications to treat horse arthritis.
Routine therapies used to relieve discomfort and immobility in joint structures are pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF), massage, rest and relaxation, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), corticosteroid injections, topical medications, and joint health supplements.
We explain a little bit about each treatment option below.
Electromagnetic Field Therapy
PEMF (Pulsed Electromagnetic Field) therapy is a painless and non-invasive treatment that uses magnetic fields to stimulate healing. The therapy relies on a magnetic field, which affects the cells by pulsing electromagnetic impulses at a variable (but pre-set) intensity and frequency through the horse’s body.
PEMF works well for arthritis because it’s designed to:
- Reduce inflammation
- Increase blood circulation
- Stimulate the release of endorphins (pain-relieving hormones)
- Aid in the repair of damaged tissue
- Improve joint function
At this time, there are no known side effects associated with PEMF therapy, and it can be used in conjunction with other horse arthritis treatments, like medication or supplements. However, it’s a good idea to discuss PEMF therapy with your vet before including it in your horse’s treatment plan.
You can administer PEMF therapy through boots, leg wraps, fitted pads, and handheld devices. Many handheld devices and fitted pads offer additional features, like light therapy and massage, to encourage healing and alleviate pain.
Overall Body Massage and Attention at the Affected Joint
Massage increases blood flow to the affected joint and general area of pain, reducing discomfort and swelling.
A professional therapist or horse owner can perform massage. If you decide to massage a horse yourself, it’s essential to be gentle and not put too much pressure on the affected area, as this could cause further pain.
If you’re not sure how to massage your horse, there are many instructional videos and articles available online. You can also ask your veterinarian or a professional horse massage therapist for guidance.
Additionally, many veterinarians recommend the purchase of massage products specifically designed for horses, such as massage rugs and handheld devices, to relieve arthritic pain in performance horses.
Massage rugs like the Activo-Med Combi Pro II Blue Therapy System provide deep-tissue pressure and stimulation from head to tail. This rug also comes with other features, like PEMF therapy, that increase your horse’s circulation and promote all-around comfort and suppleness.
Rest and Recovery
Rest and relaxation are important for all horses, but especially those with arthritis. During periods of rest, the horse’s body can direct its energies towards healing and repair. Some horses require a long span of rest to recover from injuries or infections. However, too much rest can also lead to soreness and muscle atrophy.
The key is to find a balance that allows your horse to recover without becoming too stiff or sore.
You should always consult your veterinarian before making any changes to your horse’s exercise routine. They will be able to advise you on how much rest is appropriate for your horse’s arthritis and any other health conditions.
Non-Steroidal Ant-Inflammatory Drugs
NSAIDs are a type of medication that reduces inflammation and relieves pain. NSAIDs are a standard treatment for horse arthritis and can be given orally or injected into the joint.
The most common NSAIDs used to treat horse arthritis are phenylbutazone (Bute), flunixin meglumine (Banamine) and ketoprofen. The anti-inflammatory properties in these medications work well because inflammation is a major contributor to arthritis pain.
There are some side effects associated with NSAIDs, such as stomach ulcers, so it’s important to talk to your veterinarian about the risks and benefits before starting your horse on this medication.
Corticosteroid injections are another standard treatment. They can be given into the joint, directly into the synovial fluid, or injected into the horse’s muscle.
Corticosteroids reduce swelling. Corticosteroid joint injections are often used to treat horse arthritis because they can provide relief from pain and inflammation for a longer period of time than NSAIDs. To successfully mitigate swelling, horses typically only need an injection of steroids into the synovial fluid of the joint every 6 to 12 months.
However, there are some risks associated with joint injections, such as potential joint damage, so owners should talk to their veterinarian about the risks and benefits before starting this treatment.
Topical medications, such as salves and ointments, can also be helpful in reducing pain and swelling.
Salves are a type of medication that can be applied to the horse’s skin. Most liniments for arthritis work by stimulating blood flow to the area and providing a cooling or heating sensation that can help minimize swelling and offer comfort to the horse.
Topical medications can be very soothing for the horse’s muscles and joints, but it’s vital to follow the directions on the label and not apply them too frequently, as this could cause skin irritation.
Always consult your vet before applying linaments or administering any other sort of medication or therapy to ensure it’s safe and meets their unique needs.
Nutrition is vital to good health, and nutritional supplements, most often administered in the form of a joint capsule, can help slow the progression of arthritis and improve joint function.
Glucosamine and chondroitin are two of the most common ingredients in horse joint supplements. These ingredients work together to support joint cartilage health and decrease inflammation.
Hyaluronic acid is another common ingredient in horse joint supplements. Hyaluronic acid helps lubricate the joints and prevent pain.
A wisely chosen joint capsule can be beneficial for horses with arthritis in some cases, staving off the need for more aggressive medications. A joint capsule that supplements the horse’s diet may also be used preventively in horses susceptible to developing arthritis.
Surgery that fuses the affected joint is another possibility, but it’s usually only considered when other treatments have failed.
This surgery is most often performed on the horse’s hock or fetlock joints, typical problem areas. The goal of the surgery is to stop the horse from moving the affected joint, which will hopefully ease pain and inflammation.
Recovery from this type of surgery can take several months, and the horse will need to be on stall rest during this time. Again, this is typically a last course of action.
Daily Care for Horses with Arthritis
In addition to seeking out treatments and therapies for arthritic joint pain, there are a few things you can do on a daily basis to help care for your horse’s health problem.
Continue Exercising and Riding
Despite the pain associated with arthritis, it’s important to continue exercising your horse regularly. Exercise such as lunging and light riding helps improve joint function and can actually help lessen inflammation when done correctly.
Of course, you’ll want to talk to your veterinarian about the best exercise regimen for your horse. They will likely recommend a lower-intensity exercise program that doesn’t put too much strain on the horse’s joints.
That often means shorter rides at slow paces with plenty of warm-up and cool-down time.
Arthritic horses often benefit from turnout. Being outside in the fresh air and moving around can help reduce pain and stiffness, in addition to improving their mood.
If possible, turn your horse out for at least a few hours each day. If that’s not feasible, try to give them at least a little time in a pasture or paddock where they can move around freely.
Be cautious about turning the horse out with multiple other horses, as they may get stepped on or kicked, which can further injure already painful joints. They may also engage in rowdy play or fight with other animals, which can aggravate their joints.
Stable & Yard
The condition of your horse’s yard or stable can impact their joints and general well-being. A clean, dry stall offers a cozy place for your horse to rest and can help prevent further joint damage when set up correctly.
Make sure the floor and bedding are sufficiently firm, supporting the horse’s weight, but also forgiving enough for your horse to rest easy, putting as little pressure on their joints as possible. And be sure to clean the stall regularly to prevent any build-up of bacteria or fungus.
Consult an Equine Nutritionist or Vet About Diet
Diet plays a role in joint health. A diet rich in omega-three fatty acids, antioxidants and other nutrients supports healthy joints and decreases inflammation.
It’s preferable to discuss the best diet for your horse with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist over planning one on your own. They can help you create a balanced diet that meets your horse’s specific needs and encourages optimal health and weight.
In addition their regular diet, a nutritionist or vet may also recommend feeding a joint supplement or other nutritional supplements to your horse, as we mentioned above.
Keep Hooves Trimmed and Healthy
Be sure to maintain a regular hoof-care routine. Healthy hooves are essential to any horse’s health and well-being, and balanced, well-trimmed hooves will take some of the strain off of your horse’s joints. Proper shoeing or trimming can also prevent lameness and other problems that can arise from poor hoof health or long hooves.
Employ a skilled farrier who is experienced in working with horses with chronic arthritis for the best possible results.
The Prognosis for an Arthritic Horse
Whether the horse has a case of acute arthritis or suffers from chronic arthritis that they’ve been dealing with for some time, the prognosis is typically good with treatment. With appropriate care and attention, most horses are able to live relatively normal and comfortable lives after their diagnosis.
However, it’s important to remember that arthritis is a degenerative disease, which means that it will continue to get worse over time. And it’s usually most prevalent in older horses, who tend to struggle with health issues more than younger horses.
Please also remember that catching arthritis early on is key. If you think your horse could have arthritis, contact your veterinarian about the most suitable course of treatment. Follow the treatment plan closely for the best results and seek out other opportunities to relieve pain and improve joint function where you can, like making turnout adjustments.
Also, care for your horse’s joints and the rest of its body preventatively to help lessen symptoms of arthritis and avert other health problems.
FAQs Regarding Joint Inflammation and Arthritis
We answer a few questions that horse owners frequently ask about their equine companions’ joint problems below.
Can horse arthritis be cured?
There is no cure. However, there are many highly successful treatments that can horse owners can use to help mitigate pain and inflammation with excellent results. With good management from a concerned owner, most arthritic horses can enjoy a good quality of life long after their diagnosis. You can even continue riding most arthritic horses, appreciating their company on the trail or in the ring.
As we mentioned above, however, it is a degenerative disease, which means that it will continue to get worse over time. And it’s usually most predominant in older horses. So, please understand that in many cases, the horse doesn’t “get better.” Rather, horse owners and veterinarians work together to manage the horse’s pain and keep it comfortable and in good overall health.
Can a horse have “invisible” arthritis?
Yes, especially if it’s chronic arthritis. Degenerative Joint Disorder can be “invisible.” In other words, a horse might not show any signs of pain or lameness, but it might be experiencing DJD. It’s also possible for arthritis to evade detection on X-rays in some cases, especially early on.
That said, it is still extremely important to have your horse checked thoroughly by a veterinarian if you suspect it might be suffering from this condition. There are many other diagnostic tools besides x-rays and scans that vets can use to pinpoint arthritic joints.
The “silent” nature of arthritis also makes preventive measures all the more consequential. If you have a horse that’s susceptible to arthritis, take steps to strengthen his joints and protect them from damage. This will help minimize the risk of the animal developing arthritis later on in life.
What’s the Best Way to Prevent Arthritis in Horses?
The best way to prevent arthritis in horses is to protect their joints from injury while giving them adequate exercise and ensuring they eat a healthy, balanced diet. While there are many contributing factors, injury is a leading cause of arthritis, so do what you can to avoid putting your horse in harm’s way.
You can do this by:
- Providing a safe, clean environment for your horse to live in to lower their chance of injury or infection
- Keeping hooves trimmed and healthy
- Feeding a balanced diet rich in nutrients that promotes a healthy weight
- Avoiding excessive exercise that puts extreme stress on the horse’s body
- Maintaining a healthy weight
If your horse does sustain an injury or show signs of even minor lameness, have it treated immediately by a veterinarian to avoid further damage to the joints.
Horses who have injuries treated promptly and efficiently, and those treated for arthritis at the earliest stages, have a much better prognosis than those that go untreated.
Fostering Comfort and Happiness in Your Horse
Arthritis is a degenerative disease that horse owners must learn to manage. Fortunately, treatments for horse arthritis have come a long way in recent years, and there are a considerable number of therapeutic choices available to support your horse in living an active life.
The first step is to consult with your veterinarian to get a diagnosis and develop a management plan that’s tailored to your horse’s needs. This might include changes in diet, exercise, and hoof care, as well as medications, supplements, or other therapies.
With a bit of love and careful management, you can help your horse avoid pain and enjoy a good quality of life despite arthritis, so you can relish the companionship of your equine friend for years to come.