Arthritis impacts around 50 per cent of horses over the age of 15 and is one of the leading causes of lameness.

Race horses and other horses engaging in high-impact activities are particularly susceptible.

Osteoarthritis, caused by repetitive use, strain and deterioration of joints, most commonly the fetlock or metacarpophalangeal joint, is by far the most common type of equine arthritis.

Like in humans, there is no cure for arthritis in horses but it can be managed.

The best thing you can do is follow guidelines that may assist in the prevention or delay the onset of the disease.


Preventing arthritis in horses

Following these simple practices will help your horse hold off the ravages of time and competition and stay fit and healthy for as long as possible.

Diet – Plenty of forage in a well-balanced diet is key. Protein, vitamins and minerals help maintain healthy bones and joints. Ensure they remain at the right levels, keeping particular attention on amino acids, zinc, copper, calcium and phosphorus.

Supplements – Consider adding supplements to their diet such as MSM, DHA, 4cyte/epiitalis and hyaluronic acid that support mobility and joint health.

Hoof care – Maintain regular appointments with a farrier to give joints the best possible protection. Imbalanced shoeing and poor trimming changes weight distribution and can lead to increased risk of arthritis in horses.

Conditioning – Build up your horse’s exercise program slowly over a number of weeks or even months. Start with low-intensity work, allowing joints to gain strength, before increasing their load. 

Weight – Overweight horses put extra exertion on their joints. They are also more at risk from inflammation which can trigger arthritis. 

Start them early – It is important to acclimatise foals to the rigours of exercise to help stimulate cartilage formation and bone development. But do it gently! Allowing them to roam among free pasture has also shown to help support bone and joint growth.

Initial treatment of arthritis in horses

Once your horse has been diagnosed with arthritis, there are many courses of action at your disposal.

Pain medications and pharmaceutical treatments are usually the first line of defence.

These include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs such as phenylbutazone, equioxx and previcox which work by inhibiting enzymes that cause inflammation and pain.

Liniments and other topical treatments such as Surpass (Diclofenac Sodium), which is an NSAID, and Dimethyl Sulfoxide may also ease inflammation.

But they should not be used without the recommendation of an experienced equine vet to avoid negative interaction with other drugs or in the case of the latter, prolonged use.

Regular joint injections have proven to be one of the most successful treatments for equine osteoarthritis.

These may include polyacrylamide hydrogel (Arthramid), which we’ve found to be extremely effective and long lasting, along with corticosteroids, hyaluronic acid, polysulfated glycosaminoglycans (PSGAGs), platelet-rich plasma and IRAP.

IRAP 

IRAP stands for Interleukin-1 receptor antagonist protein which is the body’s own defence against joint inflammation.

It is a natural treatment specifically designed to treat equine joint disease, helping the horse heal itself by harvesting its own blood and incubating it with specially designed glass beads that promote IRAP production.

When the IRAP has been sufficiently enriched, it is returned to the horse via injection at the point of injury.

Like any other treatment, IRAP cannot reverse the damage caused by the onset of osteoarthritis but it has shown success in limiting the progression of disease.

It also has an anti-inflammatory component, particularly when used in conjunction with other treatments.

The primary benefits of IRAP therapy are:

  • Stimulates horses’ own white blood cells to trigger a protective response against inflammation
  • One collection of blood can produce enough serum for up to eight treatments
  • Serum may be stored frozen for up to 12 months

Note: IRAP is not a suitable treatment if there is cartilage or bone damage to a joint that requires surgery.

Other treatments to consider

Exercise – Regular low-impact exercise has shown to be beneficial to most horses with osteoarthritis. While short periods of stall rest may be useful for some horses displaying acute symptoms, by and large it is important to keep them on the move with as much turnout as possible.

Acupuncture – Another complementary therapy that has shown good results in horses suffering back pain which may be the result of arthritis.

Joint supplements – Just as they may be used for prevention, joint supplements can be a useful treatment to complement a well-balanced diet. MSM, Glucosamine, Hyaluronic Acid, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Chondroitin Sulfate may offer relief. Herbal supplements such as Rosehip, Devil’s Claw and White Willow have also had some success in relieving symptoms.

Contact us today

If you suspect your horse may be suffering arthritis, or want to get proactive in arthritis prevention, it is critical to work with an experienced equine veterinarian.

Getting a professional assessment from a vet will help guard against more serious injury and discomfort for the horse and it will also help avoid asking them to perform while under duress.

Led by Dr Ian Church, Newmarket Equine is highly experienced in the treatment of all types of equine arthritis.

The team will recommend the most appropriate course of action, design a treatment plan and provide further diagnostic tests should they be required.

Please contact the office for more information.

The information contained on this article is general in nature and does not take into account your horse’s individual needs. You should consider whether the information is appropriate to your horse’s needs, and seek professional advice from a qualified vet.

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