Equine Arthritis in Horses

PetMD Editorial
July 25, 2008
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Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD) 

Arthritis, often called degenerative joint disease (DJD), is a condition that afflicts many horses. Arthritis is not only painful, but makes it difficult for a horse to move about. The condition is normally characterized as a slowly developing chronic disease of the joint in which the joint surface (cartilage) wears down, resulting in pain and subsequent lameness.

Arthritis cannot be treated, but in many cases it can be managed. This condition is often an inevitable change as a horse grows older, and often is the reason for a horse to be retired from riding.

Symptoms and Types

  • Stiffness that a horse can usually warm out of
  • Joint swelling (can be one or more joints). Common joints to see arthritis are the fetlock, carpus (knee), and hock.
  • Lameness

There is also a type of arthritis called septic arthritis. This is an acute form of DJD caused by a bacterial infection. This is extremely detrimental to the horse and can be difficult to treat, as it is hard to get antibiotics into the joint capsule. Septic arthritis is seen in foals that have compromised immune systems or systemic disease, and also if there has been a traumatic injury near a joint.

Causes

  • Trauma to the joint (i.e. hard work over the years)
  • Wound and infection (septic arthritis)

Diagnosis

Your veterinarian will be able to diagnose arthritis in your horse with a physical examination and a lameness exam. Sometimes radiographs (x-rays) are used to assess the severity of the arthritis, especially if the horse is still being ridden.

Treatment

Depending on the severity of the arthritis, your veterinarian may prescribe one of many courses of management for your horse. As stated above, there is no treatment for arthritis, only ways to help manage it and prevent it from progressing too quickly. For example, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are a common management tool. An oral or injectable joint supplement, such as hyaluronic acid or glucosamine, may also be prescribed. Direct injection of the affected joint(s) with corticosteroids and hyaluronic acid may also help. New technologies, such as the injection of stem cells into affected joints are also being developed and offered by some veterinarians. Although you should not ride your horse when he is lame, keeping your horse moving will actually help an arthritic horse maintain suppleness and joint mobility. If an arthritic older horse is placed on strict stall rest he is likely to become even more stiff and sore than if he were in a pasture.

Living and Management

A horse with arthritis can be managed with a proper exercise program, medications and supplements, and even direct joint therapy. The extent of the management will vary greatly depending on the age of the horse and the work he is doing.