Swelling of Lower Limb Joints in Horses

Key Takeaways

Joint swelling is a common symptom in horses and has a variety of causes. 

If accompanied by severe or sudden lameness, joint swelling is an emergency and immediate vet care is needed

• The causes of swelling include traumatic injury to the joint, osteoarthritis, joint infections, and abnormalities in the bone or cartilage

•  Diagnosis typically involves a physical examination and diagnostic imaging to identify an underlying cause

• Depending on the underlying cause, treatment involves a combination of rest, anti-inflammatory medications, cold hosing, and in some cases antibiotics or surgical intervention

A Closer Look: What is Swelling of Lower Limb Joints in Horses?

Joint swelling in horses is common and has a number of potential causes which vary in severity. Some causes of joint swelling are potentially career-ending for competitive horses, particularly if not treated promptly. If joint swelling occurs alongside severe or sudden lameness, the horse owner should seek immediate veterinary care. Cases with mild or no lameness require prompt veterinary care, to rule out underlying issues and ensure the joint’s long-term health.

Possible Causes

Joint swelling is a symptom of a number of conditions in horses;

• Traumatic injury to the joint • Bacterial infections within the joint

• Degenerative conditions, including osteoarthritis• Injury to the joint bursa, such in capped hock or elbow 

• Articular cartilage or bone abnormalities, such as subchondral cysts or osteoarthritis dissecans

Risk Factors

Joint swelling can vary in severity based on a number of factors:

Acute: • Swelling has rapid onset • Often associated with a sharp pain

Chronic: • Swelling has persisted for a significant amount of time (weeks, months)

Single Joint: • One affected joint

Multiple Joints: • More than one joint is affected

Degree of Lameness associated with the swelling: • Lameness associated with joint swelling is serious and requires immediate attention, especially if the onset is acute

Testing and Diagnosis

Diagnostics for a horse with joint swelling starts with physical examination to identify the severity. Since horses have multiple of each joint, swelling can be easily compared to a counterpart to determine the severity of the swelling. Diagnostic testing to determine the cause for joint swelling may include:

• Lameness examination • Diagnostic imaging (x rays, CT scans, bone scan, ultrasound) • Bloodwork • Joint fluid analysis

Treatment depends on the cause but may include;

• Stall rest • Surgery • Antibiotics • Anti-inflammatory medication • Cold packs or cold hosing • Joint injections

Similar symptoms

Joint swelling can be mistaken for hematomas near the joint. Some soft skin masses over the joint space can also mimic joint swelling.

Associated Symptoms

Joint swelling in horses is commonly associated with

Lameness • Reduced exercise tolerance • Poor performance • Stiffness in joints • Reduced mobility in joints

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