What Is Equine Joint Arthritis
As in humans, equine arthritis is a kind of “catch all” term that refers to inflammation in joints and surrounding tissues. It is painful, especially when it affects high motion, heavy weight-bearing joints such as the higher hock joint, knees, fetlocks and stifles. Other areas affected can include shoulder joints, hip joints, elbows, and coffin bones/joints. I have seen arthritis in other areas that are sometimes overlooked, for example in neck vertebrae. Arthritis can develop as a result of an injury; sometimes it is just an age onset situation due to repetitive motions throughout a performance career; and sometimes it begins due to a horse’s conformation– not necessarily that it is bad, but maybe for that horse’s job, his conformation causes extra stress in one or more joints. Surprisingly, even young horses can develop arthritis – juvenile arthritis, a condition that can be caused by OCD lesions (Osteochondritis Dissecans), is usually related to feed and rapid growth of joints, but can also be a result of stressing joints in young horses beyond their current capacity. The cartilage involved in the joint is susceptible to damage (i.e., ends becoming rough), so protecting the cartilage and the synovial fluid in the joint capsule is of primary concern when monitoring and treating arthritis. Generally speaking, the cartilage consists of collagen fibers, Glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), and proteoglycans, in a matrix that is predominantly water. The synovial fluid is in the joint capsule and is the oil to the joint. When vets administer “joint injections,” they are most often injecting hyaluronic acid (one of the main components of synovial fluid, which keeps the joint lubricated), steroids (to help reduce inflammation), and some antibiotics. Inflammation from damaged joints compromises the synovial membrane, and the viscosity of the existing fluid can be compromised as well.
Types of Equine Joint Arthritis
With the different types of arthritis, symptoms, treatments, diagnosis and management plans may vary between individuals. It is not a one-size-fits-all protocol for treatment. Osteoarthritis, traumatic arthritis, Rheumatoid (autoimmune), and arthritic onset associated with old injuries are some examples of different types of arthritis that may present in equines. Chronic conditions are treated somewhat differently than acute conditions caused by traumatic injury.
Osteoarthritis- Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD) is more likely to be classified as chronic than acute. DJD is common in performance horses whose jobs include high concussion maneuvers, quick speed, quick stops, sharp turns, high and sustained speed, etc. It is also commonly found in dressage and can be related to the beautiful, yet somewhat taxing gait variations in that sport. In DJD, there is progressive degradation of articular cartilage. The degradation is caused by damage to cartilage or bone, which causes inflammation. The inflammation brings about certain damaging chemicals that affect the synovial fluid and can cause swelling of the joint, which usually culminates in a loss of range of motion and obvious lameness. The damaged cartilage begins to lose integrity and density, making it less able to provide cushion between the bones. This degradation is tracked through radiographs or fluoroscopy to see the joint space – which is a primary indicator of the health of the cartilage. Decreasing joint space often translates to lost cartilage. Generally, it is suggested that an owner obtain a base set of radiographs on a performance horse so the joint health can be tracked – this creates an understanding of the timeline of any joint degradation and the speed at which joint conditions are changing, and it will ultimately help to determine the best treatment plan in the event that degradation becomes debilitating. It is important to note that arthritis can be present, and damage to cartilage and synovial fluid can be occurring before any outward visual signs are apparent to the owner. Proactive radiographs, therefore, are helpful and advisable.
Traumatic Joint Injury- Different than DJD, Traumatic Joint Injury typically occurs when there is an injury sustained in some type of accident. Most often there will be pain, inflammation, and heat in the affected joint or limb. Treatment for acute situations usually involves pain management, swelling management, and trying to keep heat out of the joint with ice, ice boots, or cold water. Typically, a trauma can increase fluid in the bursa membrane of the joint capsule. When this happens, if the fluid is excessive, it can be drained by a vet. Remember, inflammation and swelling create a damaging environment to the joint. When pulling fluid off a joint, or when giving intra-articular joint injections, the presence of blood in the synovial fluid as well as the viscosity, or lack thereof, of the synovial fluid can be indications of the severity of the trauma and general condition of the joint. In a traumatic injury, the vet will most likely choose to radiograph or fluoroscope the injured limb to positively eliminate the occurrence of a bone fracture or damaged soft tissue (tendon and ligament).
Equine Joint Arthritis Factors
Performance horses are at higher risk of arthritis as a whole, and probably at higher risk for a traumatic occurrence as well, simply due to the repetition of their disciplines as well as the perpetual competition timelines. Old injuries are prone to arthritis due to the joint changes the injury created or exacerbated. Often these injuries cause joints to lay down extra bone at the site of the injury which can create spurs, adding to inflammation and possible tendon or ligament interference of regular joint action. Detecting a joint infection is also a possibility when looking at a horse for arthritis. The treatments and prognosis change if a joint infection discovered. These can be serious, and it is a good reason to stay on top of getting a problem promptly diagnosed by your vet. As with any infection, immediately contacting your vet is of utmost importance.
Possible factors predisposing a horse to arthritis onset can be, as mentioned above, poor conformation, including, but not limited to hoof deformities – even human-made deformities caused by poor shoeing and trimming. Knowledgeable farriers are an integral part of keeping your horse’s joints as healthy and sound as possible. If the horse is landing unevenly, it will affect all of the joints that take any concussion and stress, which is, hmmm, like all of them!
Equine Joint Arthritis Diagnosis and Treatment
When lameness occurs, such as shortened stride, evident limping, stiffness, head bobbing, subnormal performance, or inability to perform a maneuver, a vet exam should be scheduled to find the cause. The affected or suspected joints can be “blocked” to see how the horse’s movement varies. Usually, the vet will block lower to higher on the limb if there is a question as to what joint may be causing the pain/lameness. For example, the block might start at a coffin joint, then go to the fetlock, then the knee, or hock, etc. Progressive loss of cartilage can certainly be the consequence of a traumatic event, not just performance degradation. Damage to the joint capsule itself, which includes the bones, the bursa, the connective tissues, and the synovial fluid is sometimes hard to diagnose at time of occurrence but can surface later as chronic arthritis and even bone spurring due to osteophyte production. Loss of cartilage is also common in older horses, often due to age and a lifetime of wear and tear on joints. This is true of most animal species – equine, canine, and feline – and even humans!
It is evident that leaving arthritis, of any type, untreated is a very damaging proposition. Fortunately for performance horse owners today, we have the advantage of high-end research and product development – by highly reputable companies – that involves premier owners, trainers, and competitors in the equine industry. With the knowledge we have available to us, it is not only prudent but part of stewarding our animals, to be proactive in combating arthritis and the degenerative damage it causes to our partners. We should strive to prevent damage and also to treat damage that has already occurred.
John Ewing Company has always been on the cutting edge of equine health products, and their Formula 707 Joint 6in1® product is no different. The six components of the formulation include collagen, glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, bromelain, and Green-Lipped Mussel, many of the building blocks of healthy joints and connective tissue. These ingredients work synergistically to support healthy joint function, increase synovial fluid, and aid in the reduction of the inflammation that is so damaging to equine joints. Formula 707 Joint 6in1 is available in pellets or Joint 6in1 Daily Fresh Packs®.
And finally, as is apparent, I offer the disclosure that I am not a veterinarian. Always consult your vet with questions on lameness issues. The discussion above is derived from many years of performance horse experience, a lot of personal interaction with vets specializing in lameness, and varied occurrences and issues in numerous rodeo horses.
About the Author
Kathy Gannon is a Colorado horse trainer, specializing in barrel horses, who also assists in barrel horse clinics, gives lessons, and coaches. She has been a WPRA cardholder and competitor since 1998 and grew up with a passion for riding. Kathy has 25 years of experience in the rodeo and barrel horse industries, and has multiple association wins under her belt, including saddles and awards. Kathy has been involved in many disciplines – reining, working cow horse, versatility ranch horse, as well as barrel racing. She has ridden with many notable trainers including but not limited to Buck Brannaman, Blue Allen, Martha Josey, Charmayne James, Kelly Yates, and many others throughout her career.