Joint inflammation (arthritis) in horses

Arthritis is a disease that affects many horses. It is not only painful but also makes it difficult for a horse to move. The condition is usually characterized as a slowly developing to partially chronic disease of the joint, in which the joint surface (cartilage) is worn out. This leads to pain and subsequent lameness of the horse.

With the right treatment, arthritis in horses can be alleviated in many cases.

The term arthritis is generally used to describe an inflammation of the joints, regardless of its form or cause. A rough distinction can be made between aseptic (e.g. caused by trauma) and septic (infected) arthritis. In addition, a classification can be made according to whether one or more joints are affected or also according to which structures are affected and the time course (acute/chronic).

Acute arthritis is characterized by tissue destruction of cartilage, bone and/or capsule tissue. Bleeding into the joint (e.g. from a blow) also leads to inflammation of the joint. Through recurrent traumatisation and wear and tear, as well as through failure to treat or incorrect treatment of an inflammation of the joint, the disease progresses and leads to chronic arthritis (arthrosis) up to deformation of the affected joint.

Septic arthritis, on the other hand, is characterized by the penetration of germs (bacteria) into the joint. This can occur directly through perforating injuries (e.g. fork prick), through the bloodstream (e.g. in foals through a purulent inflammation of the umbilical cord, whose pathogen spreads into the bloodstream) or through a collapsing, purulent process near the joint.

A special form is polyarthritis, in which several joints are inflamed by a diseased immune system (rheumatism).

The symptoms of acute joint inflammation range from swelling of the affected joint, increased heat, sensitivity to pressure, possibly fever, to more or less pronounced lameness. Chronic joint inflammation, on the other hand, is characterized by a clammy, stiff gait, and sometimes hard, rough circumferential increases in the joint. An excessive heat development can rather not be noticed. More significant is the stiffness of the horse. Horses with arthrosis often break in after some time during riding. Cold, wet weather conditions lead to a worsening.

Infected arthritis is accompanied by fever and a sometimes severe disturbance of the general condition. The horse is often no longer able to perform, refuses feed and is dull to listless. Pus and wound fluid can, but need not, come out of an opened joint. Because of the often bad prognosis, a specialist veterinarian should always be consulted.

  • Trauma to the joint (wear and tear over the years)
  • Wound and infection (septic arthritis)
  • Rheumatic diseases

The diagnosis can often be made by the veterinarian simply by the appearance of the symptoms described. For this purpose, a general examination is carried out first, followed by a lameness examination.

Further examinations such as X-ray and ultrasound examinations as well as the performance of a joint anaesthesia refine the diagnosis and enable a more targeted therapy.

Depending on the findings, a therapy is initiated. This ranges from the administration of special anti-inflammatory drugs to immobilization or – depending on the case – light movement, application of cold or heat therapy and the application of bandages. The extent to which the horse can continue to be used in its current application must be made dependent on the individual case.