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Managing Arthritis in Horses By Kentucky Equine Research Staff · January 13, 2014

Older riders and older horses share something in common: both groups are frequently plagued with the pain, stiffness, and limited range of movement caused by arthritis. Not surprisingly, the same management strategies—keep moving, stretch, take pain medications—have been used with some success for humans and horses. Oral joint supplements like chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine have been effective for some individuals, and injections of steroids or hyaluronic acid are often helpful in reducing inflammation and supporting joint lubrication.

According to an article in Trail Blazer, some newer strategies are being developed to combat arthritis. Though some are still considered experimental, at least in the U.S., these treatments show considerable promise in treating discomfort and slowing progression of the condition.

A healthy joint is made up of solid bones, strong connective tissue, smooth cartilage, and fluid to lubricate the moving parts. A problem with any one of these components has the potential to cause pain and a reduced range of motion. Therefore, treatment options include those that keep changes from happening or repair damage.

Bone tissue is constantly being renewed as mature cells are destroyed and new ones are produced. If the rate of destruction exceeds the rate of production, bones become weaker and less able to bear weight and stress. Tiludronate, a drug that slows bone cell destruction, may be helpful in some cases of equine arthritis. It is not yet approved for general use in the U.S., but a veterinarian can get approval for its use in some cases.

Another drug that is not yet approved for general use in the U.S. is pentosan polysulfate. This drug can slow the progression of arthritis by stimulating the horse’s body to produce the components of cartilage and joint fluid.

A treatment using the horse’s own blood is known as autologous conditioned serum therapy. In this therapy, a small quantity of the horse’s blood is collected and treated to increase the amount of a protein that blocks inflammatory factors. The blood can then be injected into the horse in several small doses that are administered a few weeks apart. The horse must be taken out of work while the therapy is being conducted but can then gradually resume exercise. Relief from stiffness and inflammation usually lasts up to a year.  

Originally used as a treatment for tendon injuries, shock-wave therapy has also been shown to relieve pain in arthritic joints, though the effect is temporary. Owners of horses that have been treated with shock-wave therapy should be careful not to misinterpret the horse’s decreased pain as a cure. If an arthritic horse is worked too hard during times of minimal pain, he may be more uncomfortable when the effect wears off.

When pain in an arthritic joint results from rough bone surfaces rubbing against each other, fusing the joint is a solution that eliminates pain but also permanently prevents the joint from moving. If it is determined that fusion is the best course of action, an injection of 70% ethyl alcohol into the joint will greatly speed the natural processes that cause the bones to fuse.