What is Degenerative Joint Disease?
DJD is relatively common in horses as they age. This disease can create changes in your horse’s behavior that are hard to pinpoint over time. However, if treated quickly your horse can live a comfortable life. Large sized horses may have a higher risk of developing DJD over time.
It is important to recognize that some of the symptoms (like change in personality and performance variations) are generalized and can mimic injuries, cysts, neurological issues and more. It will be important to pay special attention to the specific symptoms your horse may experience; if there are changes that concern you contact your equine veterinarian without delay.
Degenerative joint disease, also known as DJD, is when the cartilage in your horse’s joints deteriorates or thins. This can cause your horse to be in pain or discomfort when walking or being ridden. The disease is progressive and symptoms can become worse over time.
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Symptoms of Degenerative Joint Disease in Horses
Some of these symptoms of degenerative joint disease are generalized, while others are more specific.
- Less cheerful disposition
- Lack of enthusiasm for activities they once enjoyed
- Shortened walk – his steps may not be as long or as wide as normal
- Uneven stride – difficulty maintaining a uniform walk
- Difficulty with picking up or changing leads
- Joint swelling – you may be able to physically notice the change in his joints over time
- Stiffness of limbs – when he first begins his day he may struggle with movement; however it loosens up over time
- Lameness – difficulty standing or moving in a typical manner for your horse
Causes of Degenerative Joint Disease in Horses
- DJD can be caused by the instability of your horse’s joints or injury; when these things occur your horse’s, body tries to stabilize itself and puts unnecessary pressure on his joints, resulting in inflammation and deterioration of the joint
- Large breed horses tend to have a higher risk of developing DJD and this is thought to be due to their large bone size putting even more stress on their joints than a typical sized horse
- Exercise can cause deterioration of your horse’s joints if excessive; while it is an important part of your horse’s life, it is important to ensure his safety first
- Steroid medication, when used long term, may cause an increased chance of your horse developing DJD
Diagnosis of Degenerative Joint Disease in Horses
Diagnosis of DJD will need to be done by a veterinarian based on a physical exam and history. It will be important to share with the veterinarian what you have noticed about your horse’s behavior changes and when they began. It will also be important to discuss your horse’s lifestyle – such as is he used for riding, jumping, or showing, to better help your veterinarian understand the stress his joints may be under.
Once the physical exam is complete, testing may be requested for your horse to see any further damage and rule out other possibilities. One of the tests used are x-rays, x-rays are utilized to ensure there are no broken or fractured bones that could be resulting in your horse’s symptoms. If this test does not show any concerns, then CT scans and MRIs may be used for more advanced imaging. These 2 imaging tools can help to identify and show the extent of the damage to your horse’s joints.
Treatment of Degenerative Joint Disease in Horses
Treatment options can be as simple as anti-inflammatory medications and pain medication to help your horse to be more comfortable. There are a variety of medications available that are anti-inflammatory and can help to manage his pain and discomfort. It is also suggested to add a nutraceutical in to his diet to help with joint health.
If medication management is not enough to sustain your horse and allow him to be comfortable, surgery is the next option. Surgery can be used to remove or repair parts of your horse’s joints that are too deteriorated to remain. These surgeries are typically last resorts as DJD, if caught early enough, can be treated with less invasive methods such as medication and lifestyle change.
Recovery of Degenerative Joint Disease in Horses
Follow up appointments will be necessary as directed by your veterinarian and will most likely be necessary post-surgery and regular checkups to see any progression of his symptoms. Your veterinarian may suggest a less intense exercise regimen for your horse, along with introducing joint support supplements into his diet if caught early enough. Your horse’s joints may never return to normal; however, with appropriate interventions he can lead a comfortable and productive life.
Degenerative Joint Disease Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
My 21 year old Arabian mare has chronic problems with her front feet. Lately in the colder weather I have noticed she has trouble with her back feet. When she picks them up they click backwards when she lifts them as if she were an extremely sore gaited horse.
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