Parasite airway disease, lungworm, worms, ascarids, foals, pasture management

Osteoarthritis – what you need to know

By Wendy Talbot on 20 December 2017

Osteoarthritis (OA), also known as arthritis or degenerative joint disease (DJD), is one of the most common causes of lameness in sport horses. OA is best thought of not as a single disease but as a collection of disorders, which lead to progressive damage to the joint causing pain and eventually reduced mobility.

What are the causes? How can you spot the symptoms? and what are the treatment options and general prognosis? Read on to find out…

Osetoarthritis: what is it?

Osteoarthritis describes a detrimental process in the joint where the joint cartilage (articular cartilage) is progressively destroyed and changes occur in the associated bones and soft tissues, resulting in inflammation and pain. This usually results in lameness, although it may be very subtle in the early stages.

Which parts of the horse does osteoarthritis typically affect? 

Osteoarthritis can involve any joint but in horses the disease will typically affect the hocks, front fetlocks, upper knee joints and coffin joints in the front feet. Some joint damage is currently seen as an inevitable part of ageing, but it becomes a greater issue when the clinical signs develop more rapidly and impact on the horse’s ability to do its job.

What can cause osteoarthritis?

What are some of the signs of osteoarthritis? 

  • Early signs can be subtle, such as a mild build-up of fluid (effusion) on the joint and some reluctance to work, rather than obvious lameness.
  • There may be changes in behaviour and a reduced athletic performance such as an unwillingness to jump and signs of stiffness after being stabled or confined for any length of time.
  • Lameness, severe joint effusion and pain on flexion of the joint will become more obvious over time if nothing is done to try and reduce the development of disease.

How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?

The successful management of OA is based on early recognition and prompt treatment. Initially the horse will be examined and then assessed in hand and maybe under saddle - the vet will be looking for answers to the following questions: How lame is the horse? Which limb is affected? Are there any obvious reasons?

Flexion tests and nerve blocks may be used to provide further clues.  The most frequently used imaging technique is radiography (X-rays); however, in the early stages there may be very little seen using this technique as the actual bony changes have not yet developed.

Other imaging modalities can be used which may detect the early subtle changes in bone or cartilage or the soft tissues that surround the joints.  These include, a bone scan, ultrasonography, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) or even arthroscopy - a keyhole camera.

How is osteoarthritis treated?

The two main goals when it comes to treatment are to reduce the pain, which will in turn reduce the lameness and to minimise the progression of joint deterioration. It’s not possible to reverse the fundamental changes in the joint, so instead we try to reduce the speed with which it gets worse.

Many treatment options are available and your vet will consider a number of factors when selecting the best approach for your horse. The chosen treatment will depend on the location and severity of the disease, the age and management regime of the horse and the work expected of it. All treatment options require sensible management of the horse’s workload in the short, medium and long term.

Osteoarthritis: what’s the long-term prognosis?

Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease that can only be managed, not cured. However it’s not all bad news, many horses can and do continue to lead active lives after being diagnosed with OA. Keeping your horse at a healthy weight to reduce the strain on the joints and providing exercise consistent with their abilities and level of fitness will help to keep him comfortable in his work. Good farriery is also essential for correct foot balance and support so as not to place uneven stresses on the limbs, encourage ease of movement and prolong a healthy, active life.

If you’re concerned your horse may be suffering from osteoarthritis it’s important to book an appointment with your vet as soon as possible.

  1. https://www.vetstream.com/pennardvets/html/Factsheets/Horse/24_269960.asp
  2. http://www.oakequine.co.uk/factsheets/Factsheets/Horse/24_269960.shtml
  3. https://thehorse.com/137439/equine-arthritis/
  4. McIlwraith C (2016) Traumatic arthritis and posttraumatic osteoarthritis: In. Joint disease in the horse (2 edition), Elsevier. 33-48
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 
To make things easier for you and your horse we have 11 horse care hacks to help you through winter: 

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DR WENDY TALBOT BVSC CERT EM (INT MED) DECEIM MRCVS


Wendy graduated from Bristol University in 1999. She then went on to complete a residency at Liverpool University and holds a European Diploma in Equine Internal Medicine. After working in practice for 13 years, she joined Zoetis in 2012 as the National Equine Veterinary Manager.

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