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What are Arthritis?

Osteoarthritis, also referred to as degenerative joint disease, is the progressive deterioration of the cartilage in the joints. It is usually the end stage of other arthritic conditions, such as infectious and traumatic arthritis. Eventually, this disease will produce lameness in your horse. Infectious arthritis is caused by a bacterial infection of one of the joints in your pet’s body. This can happen due to an injection (such as a cortisone shot), surgery, or injury of the joint. It can also invade the joint through the bloodstream from an infection. Traumatic arthritis can be caused by osteoarthritis, torn ligament or cartilage in the joint area, chip fractures, or inflammation of the membrane in the joint capsule.

Arthritis in horses is the inflammation of a joint anywhere in the body. Any type of joint disease can create inflammation due to fluid in the joint and cause swelling, heat, and redness of the affected area. There are several arthritis conditions, but the most common are osteoarthritis, infectious arthritis, and traumatic arthritis. While this may not seem to be a dangerous illness, a horse is usually on his feet 20-22 hours a day so not being able to stand is a major concern. This disease is usually found in older horses, but can affect horses of any age because of the wear and tear on the joints. It is a very common disorder and can be managed with medication and physical therapy.

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Symptoms of Arthritis in Horses

Different types of arthritis can produce various side effects that are sometimes mild and sometimes serious and debilitating. However, the most common signs of arthritis are:

  • Stiffness
  • Pain, warmth, and swelling of joints
  • Tenderness of affected limb
  • Reluctance to exercise
  • Pain in the back
  • Slight swelling or puffiness of lower leg
  • Appetite loss
  • Trouble walking


There are several different types of arthritis in horses, but the most commonly reported are:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Infectious arthritis
  • Traumatic arthritis

Causes of Arthritis in Horses

There are many possible causes of arthritis in horses, but the most common include:

  • Accident (trauma)
  • Infection
  • Progressive

Diagnosis of Arthritis in Horses

To determine whether your horse has a form of arthritis or not, the veterinarian will need a thorough medical history (including recent illnesses and injuries) and vaccination records. Be sure to let the veterinarian know if you have given your equine companion  any kind of medication, and what symptoms you have noticed and when they started. The veterinarian will do a comprehensive physical examination, including, but not limited to, a body condition score based on your pet’s body weight, check for lameness, blood pressure, pulse, respiration rate, body temperature, and weight. Also, most veterinarians will do a quick examination of the teeth, nasal cavity, ears, and eyes. To check your horse’s muscle and joint functions, the veterinarian will examine the way the muscles work and manipulate the joints to check for restricted movements.

Radiographs (x-rays) are essential to diagnosing your horse and will show inflammation, thickening of the tissues around the cartilage, and decreased space in the joints. A sample of fluid in the joint area will be obtained to examine for bacteria or fungal infection. The veterinarian may also use an endoscope to get a better view of the ligaments and cartilage. Blood and urine tests will also be performed in case of any underlying disorders.

Treatment of Arthritis in Horses

There is no cure for arthritis, but you can treat your horse to relieve pain and increase range of motion. The treatment depends on the type of arthritis your horse has.

Accident (trauma)

To treat traumatic arthritis, your veterinarian will suggest rest and physical therapy. Also, ice or cold water treatment and swimming can be used to loosen up the joints and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) will be prescribed for pain and swelling.


Infectious arthritis has to be treated immediately with broad spectrum antibiotics injected into the joint. NSAIDS are also given to reduce the inflammation and pain. The veterinarian may also choose to flush the joint with saline solution or clean and drain the joint with an endoscope.


This is usually treated with NSAIDS such as naproxen or ketoprofen. Also, corticosteroids and physical therapy are used. If your horse’s case is serious, surgical fusion can be done.

Recovery of Arthritis in Horses

Rest and physical therapy will be suggested no matter what kind of arthritis your horse is suffering from. Be sure to keep in contact with your veterinarian and schedule follow up appointments for your pet. You should also continue working with your horse to keep the joints loose. Also, you can work the joints yourself manually and continue to bend and straighten the legs one at a time to make sure the joints do not freeze up.

Arthritis Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

3 Years
Moderate condition
0 found helpful
Moderate condition

Has Symptoms


Hello! I have a 3 year old horse which I suspect of arthritis, but it is odd, because she is young and we never rode her or put her to work. She is like a pet, she just stay in the backyard, plays and runs. Both back leg knees show signs of inflamation, a bit of stiffness and she is walking a bit strange with them. She does not have hoof shoes and never had. The stable’s floor is made out of concreit, not all being covered with hay.

Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
3320 Recommendations
Arthritis may occur really at any age, plus if Luna has never seeing a Farrier it is possible that a slight deviation in the hind hoofs may place pressure on joints like the stifle leading to orthopaedic problems. Without examining Luna and possibly doing an x-ray of the joint it is not possible for me to say specifically what the cause is, however you should try to keep her calm and prevent her running around; you should also call out a Veterinarian for an examination to be on the safe side. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

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