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Preventing arthritis in senior horses

Osteoarthrtis is a reality of aging, but with good management, it doesn't have to mean an end of your horse's working life.

By Cynthia McFarland | May 2013

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Senior Horse
Senior horses can continue to have happy, healthy careers with proper joint care and treatment. Photo: Leslie Potter
"Oh, the old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be.”

If the songwriter who penned this old folk tune knew anything about horses, he was probably referring to the joint problems that commonly plague performance horses.

When joints suffer cartilage damage—either by injury or wear-and-tear over time—it’s important to control inflammation and return the joint to normal condition as quickly as possible. Otherwise, the damage can develop into osteoarthritis (OA), also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD), which can’t be cured, only treated.

Veterinarians believe as much as 60 percent of equine lameness problems are attributed to OA, so any time a horse has inflammation in a joint, the situation requires prompt attention. The goal is to reduce pain and minimize the progression of joint deterioration.

Signs of joint trouble include swelling, heat, pain, stiffness or lameness.

Veterinarians often use radiographs to pinpoint joint problems, and there are several ways to address them, depending on severity and the individual horse’s situation.

"If there is inflammation in a joint, we typically treat it with anti- inflammatories and rest,” says Alan Ruggles, DVM, Diplomate, ACVS, surgeon and partner in Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) include phenylbutazone ("bute”), flunixin meglumine (Banamine), and Firocoxib (Equioxx).

In addition to rest and NSAIDs, your veterinarian may recommend therapies such as cold water hosing, topical creams containing diclofenac sodium (Surpass®), intra-articular corticosteroids (joint injections), hyaluronic acid (injected and/or oral), and joint supplements.

If the situation warrants, many veterinarians use corticosteroids (anti-inflammatory drugs) and hyaluronic acid (hyaluronate sodium) in combination and inject them directly into the troubled joint. Polysulfated glycosaminoglycan (trade name Adequan®) is routinely used, along with products containing hyaluronic acid (HA), such as Legend®.

Adequan is also available as an intramuscular injection, and Legend can be administered intravenously. Your vet will help determine which method is best for your horse.

HA is similar to the fluid naturally found in a healthy, normal joint. Studies have shown that it decreases inflammatory mediators within the joint, decrease damage to articular cartilage, decrease the degree of lameness in arthritic horses and stimulate production of healthy joint fluid.

"Each intra-articular product has different properties and work in the joint in different ways. In general, they are anti-inflammatory products that aid in reducing the deleterious effects that inflammation has on the joint, especially on articular cartilage,” explains Ruggles. "Your veterinarian is best equipped to help guide you as to whether intra-articular therapy is warranted and if so, which product to use. It is, however, important not to use intra-articular therapy to simply mask clinical signs if a more definitive treatment is available.”

While joint injections are common, only a licensed veterinarian should inject drugs into the horse’s joint. He/she should take precautions by preparing the area and using proper technique. If you notice any heat, localized swelling or obvious tenderness at the site of a joint injection, this could be a sign of infection and you should contact your veterinarian right away.

You’ll find a huge number of equine oral supplements on the market. Often referred to as "nutraceuticals,” these products aren’t required to be licensed, so there are no rules as to the claims a company can make about a specific product, but it helps to read labels.

Glucosamine hydrochloride and chondroitin sulfate are considered "building blocks” for cartilage production and oral HA appears to be beneficial in helping inflamed joints. Certain herbs have natural anti-inflammatory characteristics. Rare earth minerals and omega 3 fatty acids are also shown to be helpful.

Further Reading
Keeping Joints Healthy
Equine Arthritis

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Preventing arthritis in senior horses

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Reader Comments

Galadriel    Lothlorien, ME

5/19/2013 11:52:30 PM

Great advice.

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