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What causes arthritis in horses?

Scottie on the yard, arthritis in horses

Just like humans, horses are living longer than ever. But also like humans, this living longer comes with it’s own problems. Arthritis in horses becomes more common the older a horse gets. But what exactly is arthritis and how do horses get it?

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is a degenerative joint condition which gets progressively worse with time. In a joint the bones are protected by a layer of cartilage. When a horse develops arthritis, this cartilage has started to wear away, meaning the joint can’t work as smoothly as it once did. Once the cartilage has been worn away, the bones themselves can start to get worn down.

What causes arthritis?

While it is hard to point to the exact cause of arthritis and there isn’t currently a way to prevent it, your horse probably develops it for one of two reasons.

Wear & Tear

The most common reason we believe we see arthritis in horses is wear and tear. Older horses and horses who have had harder careers are more likely to have or develop arthritis. It could also explain why you see arthritis in different joints for horses in different sports, they have used those joints more. They are potentially more likely to have suffered an injury to the joint.

Infection

Another, more serious, cause of arthritis is septic arthritis. This is caused by an infection of the joint and needs to be treated quickly by flushing out the joint.

At what age do horses get arthritis?

Horses can get arthritis at any age. But it is typically associated with older horses.

Where do horses get arthritis?

A horse can develop arthritis in any joint, especially if they have injured the joint in the past. But typically we see arthritis in weight bearing joints in the limbs. The coffin joint, fetlock, knees, hocks and stifles are some of the most common areas for arthritis in horses. Scottie has recently been diganosed with arthritis in his hock.

What are the signs of arthritis in horses?

Arthritis can affect any joint in the body, so it isn’t surprising that signs of arthritis in horses differ quite a bit. But some of the signs include:

  • Loss in performance, feeling a bit sluggish or relucant.
  • Stiffness what improves as they warm up into their work.
  • Swelling in or around joints. It could be one or multiple joint, in a single leg or multiple legs.
  • Resting one leg more than the other. Maybe laying down more to take the weight off.
  • Lameness.

Arthritis is usually bilateral. This means that it usually effects pairs of legs rather than a single leg. One leg is usually slightly worse than the other, to the point where it might not be obvious there is a problem in both legs until you nerve block the obvious one. But horses can develop it in just one leg, especially in the early stages.

Scottie resting a leg. Arthritis in horses.

I noticed Scottie was resting his right hind a lot more than normal, which is why I reached out to the vet.

Can a horse with arthritis still be ridden?

Depending on how severe the arthritis is will depend on if the horse can still be ridden or not. For many horses, if it is caught in the early stages they can often continue to be ridden, just maybe at a lower level or with a bit more management. Keeping them moving can also help keep the joint loose, making the horse more comfortable. But for horses who have already started to show changes to the bone or haven’t responded well to treatment, may need to fully retire.

How is arthritis managed and treated? Keep your eyes peeled for our follow up post.

Last Updated on 08/02/2022

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