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Producer management of osteoarthritis in horses increases longevity

Like its human riders, the horse can develop pain, inflammation and degeneration in its joints that signal arthritis. By identifying these signs early, horse owners can treat the symptoms and provide relief to the horse. 

Lisa Fortier, an associate professor of large animal surgery at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, and Scott Pierce, a partner in Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital and the founding owner of Kinetic Technologies, answered questions about osteoarthritis during a recent webinar on thehorse.com.  

Osteoarthritis

In horses, arthritis is typically referred to as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease, Pierce explained. 

“We don’t really distinguish between the different types of arthritis in horses,” he said.

Fortier continued, “Osteoarthritis in horses is the degeneration of the joint as a whole, the cartilage on the end of the bones that absorbs force and also part of the inflammation on the inside of the joint.” 

The primary symptom is lameness, but horses may also exhibit shortness of stride, soreness on flexion and reluctance to perform, she added. The condition can be diagnosed through an MRI, CT or x-rays.

Although osteoarthritis primarily affects older horses – usually five and older – Pierce said he has seen symptoms in horses that are yearlings. 

“Younger horses can show predisposed conditions, like hock compression, that can lead to osteoarthritis later in life,” Pierce explained. “Good horsemanship and trainers notice subtle changes in the horse that could signal this condition.”

Pre-purchase exams

Both veterinarians stressed the importance of pre-purchase exams. X-rays and palpation can signal troubled areas like bone spurs that could predispose the horse to osteoarthritis. 

The horse may also suffer from joint filling, where the joint capsule can fill up, and the horse will be sore when the veterinarian performs a flexion test. 

The horse may also appear unbalanced, have conformational abnormalities and other indications that could indicate arthritis. 

“On a pre-purchase exam, don’t just look at X-rays, but what the horse is telling the producer while they are riding it, and what the horse is telling the examiner,” she said. 

Some horses also have more tolerance for pain than others, so the condition could be more or less apparent depending upon the horse.

Trauma can also be a predisposing factor to osteoarthritis, Fortier explained. 

If a horse hyper-extends its leg causing inflammation or sprains a ligament, it could predispose the horse to osteoarthritis as it ages. Fortier compared this type of injury to a high school football player spraining his leg and developing arthritis later in life. 

“It is a type of injury that may not show up until decades later,” she explained. 

Treatments

Early intervention is the key if a horse is developing osteoarthritis, Pierce said. 

“If it is detected early, it can be treated, and the horse will have more longevity,” he said. 

Owners are encouraged to research possible treatments for their horses and consult with a veterinarian to implement treatment methods and diagnose any underlying problems. 

Both veterinarians said if a horse has swelling in its legs, icing the area for about 20 minutes can be an very effective method to alleviate pain and discomfort. 

Pain relief can be given, but a veterinarian should be consulted regarding the most effective drug that can be given to the horse. There are many drugs on the market for pain relief, but more expense doesn’t necessary mean it is more effective, they said. 

Supplements

If a horse has osteoarthritis, Pierce would recommend a good joint supplement and limited forced exercise, depending upon what the horse can do. 

“I would not retire the horse,” he said. “It creates more problems to just lock these horses up in a stall.” 

“They may need a smaller paddock, but it is important to keep them moving,” he explained.

Older horses also need their nutrition more closely monitored, Fortier added. 

“I would bring them in at night and give them isolated access to their hay and grain, so they don’t have to compete with other horses,” she explained. 

It is also important to keep the horse at a healthy weight, neither obese or thin, and keep their feet trimmed on a regular basis. 

Fortier said the horse will also need shelter from wind and rain, but not a blanket or leg wraps unless it doesn’t grow a decent haircoat.

Do supplements work?

If owners are considering supplements to treat osteoarthritis in their horses, Pierce cautioned them to make sure the manufacturer of the supplement is a member of the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC). 

Since FDA does not regulate supplements, NASC is one of the only regulatory arms in respect to supplements, he explained. The manufacturer of the supplement has to go through regulatory testing and paperwork before NASC will allow them to put the NASC stamp on their packaging.

“Research is lacking in regards to supplements,” Pierce continued. “But, some are backed by more research than others.”

Some supplements like glucosamine have research that shows it has absorbed into the joints. Omega-3s have research showing they are inflammatory markers in arthritic horses. 

“There are a lot of supplements out there,” Pierce said. “Some work and some don’t. I would encourage producers to do research and consult with a veterinarian on any product they are considering using.”

Fortier added, “Supplements are not controlled substances. I would encourage horse owners to purchase them from a company that has enough integrity that they sell the same product over and over again.” 

“There are too many companies that sell one product today and a different one next month,” she added. “There is also an independent website, consumer lab, that independently tests products.” 

“Lastly, I would recommend that producers find a vet they trust to tell them what works and what doesn’t,” she said. 

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..