Arthritis in horses


What is arthritis and how does it happen?

Osteoarthritis (OA), also termed degenerative joint disease, is a common problem in all types of horses and can affect a number of different joints with the potential of ending many racing and other performance careers.

In racing and performance horses it often affects the high motion joints, whereas in horses used for less strenuous activities it is more common in the low motion joints.

The most obvious sign of arthritic disease in horses is lameness. Although it can affect any joint, most common areas are the upper knee joint, front fetlocks, hocks, or coffin joints in the front feet.

Where does it all start?

OA normally occurs after injury (can occur at any time) of those joints with one or more of the following conditions created in the joint:

  • – Osteochondrosis (cartilage fragmentation)
  • – Inflammation (the invasion of the joint and surrounding areas by the body’s own white blood cells and other inflammatory agents)
  • – Infection (the invasion of the joint by foreign material, like bacteria)
  • – Chemical irritation (from substances injected into the joint)
  • – Ligament damage leading to instability of the joint

OA can also be activated merely by normal wear and tear

The senior horse can also be at risk due to increasing wear and tear on the joints, and also due to accidents and mishaps that may occur. Their tendons and ligaments become less elastic with age and tear more easily. The cartilage in joints becomes thinner, thereby absorbing less shock and putting more pressure on the bone underneath the cartilage.

Can arthritis be prevented?

Although injury to an active horse’s joints can’t be totally prevented, injury can be treated promptly to prevent the condition leading to OA in the short term or developing later in life.

Because of this, it is important to know the warning signs of joint injury:

  • Mild swelling and heat in a joint
  • General decreased range of motion
  • Increased stiffness before warming up
  • Slight lameness after exercise, or an obvious limp
  • Declines in performance, or changes in the horse’s general attitude

Ask your vet! When these signs are present, it is important to have the horse examined by a veterinarian to determine the extent of joint injury and treatment options that can be followed, to:

  • Reduce the inflammation as fast as possible
  • Cure any infection
  • Repair or rebuild cartilage and
  • Stabilise the joint.

Diagnostic tests may include: Observation as the horse performs variousgaits, nerve blocks, radiographs and diagnostic ultrasound.

Diagnostic nerve blocks – identify the area where the lameness originates,Radiographs – identify problems in the bones of the joint

Ultrasound – identify any soft tissue abnormalities in and around the joint.

There are many treatment options available, but discuss them in detail with your veterinarian before using them. The best option is to obtain the treatment from the veterinarian with whom you have a close working relationship.


Once the presence of arthritis in the older horse has been determined, treatment or management of the condition depends upon the severity of the disease and the amount of work the horse is expected to perform.

  •  Regular exercise, tailored to your senior horse’s condition, increases circulation of nutrients into, and wastes out of, the joints while strengthening muscles that protect the joints from stress.
  •  Turn your horse out, and/or put him to work – carefully.
  •  Avoid stall confinement unless advised by your vet for a specific condition.
  •  Flex the affected joint passively a couple of times/day.
  •  Ensure a good warm-up session before each day’s exercise.

Talk to your veterinarian about a treatment that not only relieves your senior horse’s joint pain but also is in his best interest as an individual.

© Pet’s Health

Leave a reply