How to treat and manage osteoarthritis in horses

How to treat and manage osteoarthritis in horses - Two trotting horses

Osteoarthritis affects the majority of horses at some point in their life. It’s important for horse owners to know the signs and symptoms of equine osteoarthritis to catch it early and take steps to try to slow progression. Keep reading to learn:

  • What is osteoarthritis?
  • What are the symptoms of equine osteoarthritis?
  • What causes osteoarthritis?
  • How is osteoarthritis diagnosed in horses?
  • What is the treatment for osteoarthritis?
  • How can I keep my arthritic horse healthy?

Osteoarthritis is the most common joint disease and type of arthritis in equines, with over 60% of lame horse cases caused by osteoarthritis. As they begin to live longer lives, cases of osteoarthritis and degradation in the joints of horses are on the rise. It’s important for horse owners and competitors to recognize the signs of osteoarthritis early, take steps to try to delay progression, and provide adequate equine care to keep their horses comfortable.

Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis that occurs when the joints wear out over time. The disease is progressive and cannot be cured, but can be slowed with proper equine veterinary care. While it most often affects older or working horses, horses of any age, size, or occupation can develop osteoarthritis. As they walk, run, and jump, healthy joints move together to allow normal movement, cushioned by articular cartilage and lubricated by synovial fluid. This movement creates normal wear and tear on the articular cartilage and leakage of joint fluid within the joints of horses over time. As time passes, this normal wear and tear causes articular cartilage and synovial fluid to break down and the bones begin to rub together. This abnormal joint function causes inflammation in the soft tissue as well as pain and stiffness in the arthritic joint.

An equine’s healthy joints are built to withstand large amounts of weight and percussive force. However, age, genetics, activity levels, and overall equine care can cause healthy joints to turn arthritic over time. Osteoarthritis can affect any articular joint, but mostly affects the hock joint, stifles, and fetlock joints in horses.

As a progressive joint disease, signs of osteoarthritis are most commonly found in the joints of horses and surrounding soft tissue. Your horse may have osteoarthritis if they have:

  • Stiffness in the legs or joints
  • Swollen joints and soft tissue
  • Joints that feel warmer to the touch than usual
  • Signs of pain, especially while walking or running
  • Lameness
  • Audible popping or cracking noises when walking
  • Sour mood or stubbornness to compete, perform, or exercise
  • Reduced activity levels

As normal joint function decreases, a horse with arthritis will show more signs of pain, inflammation, and stubbornness or inability to do certain kinds of activity. It’s a normal part of aging in both humans and equines, but horse owners should be able to recognize the signs of osteoarthritis early to keep their horses comfortable and active for as long as possible.

While horses of any age, size, breed, or occupation can develop osteoarthritis, there are some more at risk than others. Risk factors for osteoarthritis include:

  • Heavy wear and tear on joints
  • Age: senior equines are at higher risk
  • Working horses or horses with long athletic careers
  • Genetics - limbs, back, or hooves shaped incorrectly
  • Obesity
  • Injuries causing traumatic arthritis
  • High activity levels with strenuous exercise

A senior or overweight horse is the most likely to develop osteoarthritis, though these other risk factors play a part in the condition as well. “Maintaining a healthy exercise regimen and weight are great ways to promote joint health and slow the progression of osteoarthritis in horses,” states Dr. Jo Myers. If, however, your horse has been injured and shows acute signs of joint pain, swelling, and lameness, get veterinary care immediately to rule out septic arthritis.

How do veterinarians diagnose osteoarthritis in horses?

It’s crucial to diagnose and create a treatment plan for osteoarthritis before it has progressed too far in order to keep your horse healthy and comfortable. After discussing symptoms with the owner, an equine veterinarian will perform a hands-on exam and flexion test to check for heat, inflamed joints, and lameness or stiffness. It can be difficult to diagnose early osteoarthritis with an x-ray because cartilage and soft tissue does not show on the film.

In more advanced osteoarthritis, veterinarians can use x-rays and arthroscopy, the insertion of a tiny camera into the synovial joint, to visualize any changes. With painful or lame horses, some veterinarians will perform a nerve block or use pain medication to determine where an arthritic horse’s pain is coming from.

Though osteoarthritis is most common, It’s important to rule out other equine diseases and injuries with similar symptoms, such as:

A diagnosis of arthritis in horses involves ruling out other diseases and injuries with similar symptoms. If arthritis is suspected, narrowing down what type of arthritis is helpful to develop the right treatment plan.

What is the treatment for osteoarthritis in horses?

Treatment of horses with osteoarthritis will vary from horse to horse. Always consult an equine veterinarian before creating a treatment plan or exercise regimen for your horse with osteoarthritis. Treatments of osteoarthritis in horses can include:

  • Oral or injectable non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Oral or injectable steroids
  • Hyaluronic acid joint injections
  • Daily exercise
  • Icing swollen joints and soft tissue
  • Weight loss for overweight horses
  • Joint or mineral supplements

Treatment of osteoarthritis involves the careful management of medications and exercises with an equine vet. Joint injections can help ease joint pain and stiffness in a lame horse, allowing them to move and exercise normally. One of the most common treatments for equine osteoarthritis is an injection directly into the joint capsule. It’s crucial to continue daily exercise with your horse as part of your treatment plan. A veterinarian can help create a curated exercise plan for you to follow for long-term management and inflamed joint flare-ups.

Should I provide equine joint supplements?

There is a lack of evidence proving any benefit of joint supplements, such as oral glucosamine, but they are generally harmless to try. Mineral supplements that claim to help promote cartilage development and healthy hooves and hair are also similarly lacking in evidence to support those claims. Always consult an equine veterinarian before adding supplements to your normal equine diet.

Unfortunately, equine osteoarthritis cannot be completely prevented, but it can be delayed and progression can be slowed. Gentle daily exercise will help prevent the early onset of arthritic joints and protect healthy joints. Percussive exercise, hills, and exercise on hard ground can cause more wear on joints than exercise on flat, soft ground like pastures and trails. Avoid overworking your horse and give them ample time to recoup and heal after competing or working.

Sticking to a regular hoof trimming and maintenance routine will help keep your horse’s gait normal and even helps prevent abnormal wear on muscles and joints. Adjusting a mature horse’s diet and adding joint supplements may help promote joint movement and keep them at a healthy weight. Finally, regularly check their physical appearance for malformed or injured hooves, back, or hindquarters with regular veterinary care.

Keeping your horse at a healthy weight by checking its body condition score regularly will also help maintain healthy joints. If you’d like to ask a vet about the signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis in your horse, you can connect with an online vet. By keeping your horse active and healthy, you can prevent early osteoarthritis and slow the progression of existing arthritis.

What are the signs of osteoarthritis in horses?

Horses in the early stages of osteoarthritis may seem stiff in the mornings before warming up, or their joints may become warm to the touch and inflamed after riding. As osteoarthritis progresses, your horse may show signs of worsening inflammation, pain, and not wanting to run or exercise like usual. It’s important to contact a veterinarian early to slow the progression of osteoarthritis in horses.

How is osteoarthritis treated in horses?

The treatment of osteoarthritis involves a combination of medications, exercise, and maintenance of healthy hooves, joints, synovial fluid, and articular cartilage in horses. Every treatment is different because every horse with a diagnosis of arthritis is unique to that horse’s body and circumstances. Common treatments include a steroid or hyaluronic acid injection into the joint capsule on a regular basis. Adjusting the equine diet to promote a healthy weight is also helpful. Always ask a veterinarian before adding a supplement or changing your equine’s diet. A virtual or in-person veterinary visit can help tailor your horse’s treatment.

Can a horse with osteoarthritis still be ridden?

Yes, a horse with mild osteoarthritis can usually still be ridden on level trails and engage in other gentle activities. A diagnosis of arthritis is not the end of your horse’s life or career. It’s important to provide daily exercise to arthritic horses and encourage them to use their muscles and joints in a safe way to slow the progression of osteoarthritis. Talk to a veterinarian to create an exercise and treatment plan before continuing rides on hard, hilly, or difficult trails to keep your horse with arthritic joints comfortable.

How long can a horse live with osteoarthritis?

Depending on the progression of osteoarthritis and the age of the horse, a horse with arthritis can live comfortably for years. Treatment for osteoarthritis will vary from horse to horse but can keep your horse comfortable and ease inflamed joints with the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, steroids, and the careful management of an exercise plan.

The Vetster Editorial Team is comprised of seasoned writers and communicators dedicated to elevating stories about Vetster, pets and their owners.
Book online vet feature photo

Health concern with your pet?

Start a video chat with a licensed veterinarian right now on Vetster!

Book an online vet