Arthritis is degeneration of the joint, explained Kyla Ortved, who is a DVM and PhD. She also is a Diplomate in the American College of Veterinary Surgeons and the Jacques Jenny Endowed Term Chair of Orthopedic Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center.
“The end of those long bones is covered with articular cartilage,” she said. “It is an amazing cushion, but it has its limits.”
General wear and tear, conformation faults and injury can put that cartilage at risk, she noted. “Animals can develop arthritis, and that cartilage is not good at healing,” said Ortved. “If it becomes worn or damaged, that can lead to progressive degeneration. Joints get stiff.”
She said if this disease process is recognized early, veterinarians can help with the repair and slow progression of damage.
“Early arthritis can just feel like the horse is a ‘little off’ or feels different,” said Ortved. “It can be anything from subtle performance issues to obvious lameness.”
Since arthritis can occur in any joint—leg, neck, back—your veterinarian will evaluate the horse with a physical exam. If there is arthritis, there will be heat, pain, swelling and stiffness as it progresses.
X-rays are not as sensitive for diagnosis in the early stages of arthritis, said Ortved. “However, it becomes obvious in the end stages of a joint when there is bone-on-bone,” she noted.
She said ultrasound can be used to look at joint fluid and margins, and MRI and CAT scans can be used to get in-depth looks at the joint.
“Sometimes veterinarians localize a lameness to a joint, the X-ray looks normal, but they assume there is damage and treat for arthritis,” said Ortved. “That can prevent more damage.”
She said there is a huge arsenal of treatments, from physical and medical to therapies (ranging from regenerative to stem cell) and surgery.
“Many people hear ‘arthritis’ and want to ‘protect’ the horse by putting it in a stall,” said Ortved. “But exercise is important. You must provide use of a joint and keep the range of motion.”
In order to try and prevent arthritis, make sure you recognize how your horse moves, encouraged Ortved. “Understand how conformation affects his limbs,” she said. “There are a lot of supplements for arthritis—a lot that don’t have proven efficacy and some with more science than others.”
Ortved said the most researched and evidence-based treatment for arthritis is Adequan I.M. (an FDA-approved product).
She noted that your farrier is also important in the prevention and treatment of arthritis. “Your vet and farrier need to work as a team,” she said. “All horses are different, and your farrier has to be open to different ways of shoeing.”
Learn more by listening to EQUUS “Farm Calls.”
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