Equine Arthritis

Equine osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD), is a chronic illness in which the cartilage that normally cushions the joint bones wears down, resulting in swelling, pain and, potentially, lameness While there is no cure for osteoarthritis, there are means of managing its symptoms. Equine osteoarthritis is more prevalent in horses involved in dressage or racing than in trail horses. It is a primary cause of horse retirement. There is also another type of equine arthritis known as acute, or septic, arthritis. This disorder is usually bacterial in origin, but may also be fungal.

Causes of Equine Arthritis

Equine osteoarthritis is typically caused by the gradual wear and tear of hard work. Septic arthritis, caused by an infection, is relatively rare and is usually the result of a traumatic (often puncture) injury near a joint. It is sometimes seen in foals with compromised immune systems. The majority of cases of osteoarthritis in horses occur in geriatric animals.

Symptoms of Equine Arthritis

The primary symptoms of equine osteoarthritis are joint swelling, usually of the fetlock, carpus or hock, and gradual lameness. While the symptoms of septic arthritis may be similar, they come on with great rapidity.

Diagnosis of Equine Arthritis

A full veterinary examination of any horse with symptoms of arthritis is necessary to rule out other causes of its condition, such as fractures, torn ligaments or cartilage, bone cysts, tendonitis, bursitis or tenosynovitis. Equine osteoarthritis may also be the result of an underlying disease condition, such as Lyme disease. X-rays and other special tests, such as endoscopic examination, may also be necessary.

Treatment of Equine Arthritis

Septic arthritis in horses is treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics or antifungal agents, at times injected directly into the affected joint. This condition is a medical emergency because the infection can quickly travel through the bloodstream into the bone. Treatment must be started immediately if the patient is to recover.

Osteoarthritis, on the other hand, may be treated in a number of different ways, including:

  • Rest
  • Administration of NSAIDs to relieve pain and swelling
  • Injections of corticosteroids directly into the joint
  • Injections of hyaluronic acid, an artificial joint lubricant
  • Physical therapy, including passive bending and swimming
  • Arthroscopic surgery to remove debris
  • Administration of glucosamine and chondroitin supplements

Treatment of equine arthritis depends on the cause and severity of each individual case. In many instances, horses with arthritis are able to live out a normal lifespan in relative comfort, although their days of strenuous activity may be behind them.

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