Do horses get arthritis?

Horse Arthritis is not a single condition and is believed to represent over 60% of lameness issues in horses. The horses joints most effected are thought to be the knee, fetlock, pastern and hocks. Although mostly found in elderly horses the condition can be found in any horse of any age.

Horse Arthritis – Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

We look at equine arthritis and how it is treated

Do horses get arthritis?

Horse Arthritis is not a single condition and is believed to represent over 60% of lameness issues in horses. The horses joints most effected are thought to be the knee, fetlock, pastern and hocks. Although mostly found in elderly horses the condition can be found in any horse of any age.

The three main forms of arthritis found in horses are:

Equine Osteoarthritis (a.k.a, OA)

Osteoarthritis (also referred to as ‘OA’) or degenerative joint disease (also referred to as ‘DJD’) are arthritic symptoms relating to the degeneration of a horses joints. This often affects horses as they get older but can be seen in younger horses with a more active lifestyle. OA often creates lameness.

Equine Rheumatoid (a.k.a, RA)

Rheumatoid Arthritis (also referred to as ‘RA’) is an autoimmune disease that attacks the joints. The horses body mistakes its own levels of protein for foreign protein and tries to eliminate them. This degrades the cartilage surrounding the joints. This also creates lameness at varying levels. While it is not often diagnosed in horses, a very similar inflammatory process has been seen in many cases, which includes joint swelling and synovial membrane irritation.

Traumatic arthritis (TA)

Traumatic arthritis (TA) which is caused by excessive/abnormal use or from an acute injury. Any movement, irregular conformation or traumatic injury that affects the usage of the joint can result in negative changes. This is often found in showjumping horses and animals who have led an active lifestyle.

Each joint within the horse is covered with a thin layer of cartilage which is lubricated with joint fluid. This lubrication allows the two surfaces of the bones to rub against each other without creating friction or pain. With TA the joint undergoes a level of change or damage (often through excessive impact) damaging the lubrication process. Pain levels increase as the cartilage thins resulting in pain, inflammation, stiffness and eventually lameness. 

Arthritis joint symptoms include swelling, pain, stiffness and decreased range of motion (lack of mobility). Any joint in the body can be affected by osteoarthritis, but the most common locations of arthritis in horses are found in the fetlocks, back/spine, hocks, neck and hoofs (including the navicular area). Specific diagnosed arthritic conditions within the equine industry are can also be diagnosed as ringbone and bone spavin.

What causes arthritis in horses?

There are two main causes of arthritis diagnosed in horses, inflammation and general wear and tear. Horses over a certain age are also more likely to show signs of arthritic pain. A lifetime of bearing weight and absorbing shock takes its toll and the horses natural mechanisms for repair decline. When damage starts to occur quicker than a repair, then a joint problem often follows.

Sadly, age-related deterioration (or DJD) is hard to avoid altogether, but it’s important to note that age isn’t the only contributing factor in DJD. Horses that are vigorously exercised over hard ground are at greater risk of arthritis later in life through repetitive trauma. Similarly, horses that are poorly conformed will be relying on compensating joints to balance them. As a result, the joints are quickly weakened and become susceptible to injury and strain.

How is horse arthritis commonly treated?

The aim of any treatment to an arthritic horse is to relieve the pain, reduce the inflammation in the joints and slow the cartilage breakdown. There is no cure for arthritis at this time, but it is possible to reduce pain and inflammation, whilst preventing further damage. When given daily, a targeted joint supplement or medication may help support the joint and ease discomfort, although there is a range of alternative horse therapies also available.

In your horse’s early years, you might want to consider how your horse is worked and the kind of terrain this happens on. Remember to always incorporate a warm up and cool down into every session to prevent friction occurring in the joint. Supportive boots and magnetic therapy may also be worth exploring if your horse is experiencing arthritis particularly badly.

Is there a cure for equine arthritis?

There remains no clinically approved cure for equine arthritis. ‘Arthritis’ itself is a non clinical condition. Two horses diagnosed with the same condition may show completely differing levels of lameness. For this reason clinically proven treatments are simply not achievable.

Once the cartilage in the horses joints has been damaged the only option to horse owners is to treat the pain. Once a joints fluid has been damaged it rarely repairs itself. There are however many techniques in reducing pain levels in arthritic joints – medication, changing the horses lifestyle or exercise regime and using complimentary products.

Commonly used ways to support horse arthritis

The most common treatment for equine arthritis is NSAID medication (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) which have three main functions; to fight fever, to decrease inflammation and to provide pain relief. The issue with NSAID medication is how they are not long term solutions. The negative side effects with continued use are well documented with many of them being a short term solution only. When treating arthritis pain the reality is that the treatments are going to be long term. Recognised side effects of NSAIDS include nausea and a loss of appetite, depression and digestive issues. More serious side effects can include ulcers, damage to the liver and worse. Used correctly and short term they are perfectly safe, creating issues to horse owners who are looking for a more long term solution. 

Traditional magnetic boots and magnetic bands have been used for decades; with a mixed reputation. Traditional magnets create a pulse which increases the heat locally; this increase in temperature helps increase blood flow. Traditional magnetic devices, boots, rugs, and so on claim to support a vast array of health conditions. Increasing heat/blood flow is just a small step in the process of helping many conditions, including arthritis, and in some cases can be detrimental to the horse. 

Further techniques used in the equine industry to treat arthritic horses with mobility issues include ice boots, which reduce the temperature, and a large range of natural supplements to aid joint recovery. Some people have found herbal preparations to be effective for relieving discomfort, but it may not be wise to use them without consulting a veterinarian first. Benefits in using supplements and as part of a balanced diet are often used alongside holistic devices such as magnetic products. 

Commonly asked questions regarding arthritis

How do I know if my horse has arthritis? In most scenarios your horse will show a reduction in joint mobility. There will be subtle changes in the way they move and often an unwillingness to perform normal daily tasks. They will seem stiff and often show signs of loosening as they warm up. In more developed or severe cases they will show inflammation around the joint or even excessive warmth or pain in the area of the joint. 

Should you ride a horse who has arthritis? That all depends on the severity of the arthritis and in most cases would involve professional diagnosis. As with humans, a horse with arthritis pain will benefit from regular activity and exercise which in turn will help mobility, flexibility and conditioning. Early diagnosed stages of horse arthritis can be controlled and carefully managed  can allow you to continue to ride your horse in light activity, more severe cases will normally create lameness and the avoidance of riding the horse. Medical attention is required

Is Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD) a form of arthritis? DJD is another term for osteoarthritis and is characterised as a slowly developing chronic disease of the joint in which the cartilage in the joint wears down, resulting in severe pain and lameness. Medical attention is required.

What is septic arthritis? Septic arthritis is an acute form of DJD caused by a bacterial infection within the joint itself. This is extremely painful to the horse and can be equally difficult to treat. Septic arthritis is seen in foals and younger horses who have lower performing immune systems or systemic disease, and also if there has been a traumatic injury near a specific joint. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis reported in horses.

What is arthritis in the stifle? Stifle arthritis is common in horses. Stifles are the equivalent of a human knee which has similar features in regards to bones, ligaments, tendons and soft tissue. Arthritis in the stifle joint is often found in the femorotibial and femoropatellar joints. In most cases the horse will not be sound and often have swelling and various levels of pain. Medical attention is required.