Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

U of I logoCollege of Veterinary Medicine

Back to search page.

Equine Joint Health

Pet Column for the week of April 6, 2010

Related information:

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

Source - W. Michael Karlin, DVM
Over the years our joints take a beating. Many people who were competitive athletes at a younger age are now having knee replacement surgery after being tired of limping on a painful leg. Others may have arthritis in their hip or finger joints and be on life-long pain medications.

Like their human counterparts, many horses develop similar problems. Dr. Mike Karlin is an equine surgery resident at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. He says, "joint disease is common in horses, and the incidence of it increases with age and work." There are also disease processes that may arise at a very young age that can predispose horses to joint problems.

Arthritis, which may also be referred to as joint disease, is the general term for inflammation in a joint, may include degeneration, or new bone formation. Osteochondrosis is a specific type of disease in young animals where lesions develop in the cartilage of the joint.

If a young horse presents with pain in a certain joint, and x-rays confirm osteochondrosis, it is likely that the horse will develop degenerative joint disease, a form of arthritis, if the OC fragment is not removed. And, even then, they can still develop it in the long run. But that is just one specific type of arthritis. The bulk of cases equine veterinarians see are a result of daily wear and tear, in addition to horses being asked to perform certain activities they aren't necessarily made to do from an evolutionary standpoint.

For example, jumpers will place excessive strain on their hindquarters trying to hurdle that five-foot bush. The same goes for many Western horses that barrel race. Activities such as these make it more likely that the horse will develop joint disease in their hock or stifle. In contrast, a race horse, which tends to carry more weight on the forelimbs, is more likely to develop arthritis in its front leg joints.

If your horse does develop joint disease, there are a few options to help minimize their pain. "Joint injections help to decrease inflammation and hopefully break the inflammatory cycle," explains Dr. Karlin. In short, the inflammation within the joint is what causes the pain.

Another option that has received increased publicity in the past decade is oral supplements. These include oral, over-the-counter pills such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. Although there are some cases where these neutraceuticals have been beneficial, there is not a consensus among experts that they can prevent joint disease, or decrease it from worsening.

Dr. Karlin notes that, "There is a lot of promise in this area and people have seen results, but the science behind these compounds is still being investigated." If you do choose to put your horse on a joint supplement, choose wisely. These compounds, termed "neutraceuticals," are not regulated by the FDA. Ask your local veterinarian about a product he or she likes best.

For more information on joint health, contact your local veterinarian.