I can't count the number of times I've heard an owner lament that their aging equine is suffering from the effects of osteoarthritis. It's a bugger of an ailment to deal with--not to mention expensive!--mainly because there's no known cure for it. Once a horse has it, he's got it for life.

Although some horses are diagnosed with arthritis in their younger years, many develop the progressive problem over time; of course, this means our beloved senior horses are likely to have arthritis in one form or another, be it severe or mild. Fortunately, there are products and treatments available to help our older horses make the most of their golden years, despite arthritic joints.

Riding through the water

A regimen of joint injections and nutritional supplements has kept Dorado going, despite arthritis in several joints. Photo by Kristen Janicki

My 26-year-old Appaloosa gelding, Taz, has been afflicted with arthritis in several joints for at least a decade now and, although other ailments prevent him from working as hard as he used it, he still enjoys going out for hacks thanks to the hyaluronic acid-based nutritional supplement he consumes daily. Similarly, my 16-year-old Thoroughbred, Dorado, who still events is on a different supplement--which contains hyaluronic acid, glucosamine, and chondroitin--to help his mildly arthritic joints. There's still a lack of scientific research proving the efficacy of most joint supplements designed to improve joint function, however these neutraceuticals remain a popular choice for horse owners trying to control osteoarthritis.

Additional measures owners of arthritic seniors employ regularly are joint injections. Despite a five-year career on the racetrack in his younger days, Dorado got his first joint injections--his hocks and his right stifle--at age 15. This year, he had his right front fetlock injected. Our veterinarian is quite happy with the way he's moving at 16 and still thinks--with proper management--my aging equine has several competitive years in his future.

While Dorado's injections were in response to decreased range of motion due to osteoarthritis and other ailments, some older-horse owners use them in a preventative fashion. My trainer's former four-star event horse and current Grand Prix dressage horse has been getting injected for many years; now, at 18, his joints are still healthy enough to compete successfully against much younger horses in the dressage arena and jump around some small courses at home for the fun of it.

As osteoarthritis progresses, some senior horse owners might turn to non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) for help in relieving associated pain. Although I have limited experience with this tactic, Dorado was injured earlier this year and our veterinarian recommended a firocoxib regimen for several months, which was incredibly successful in keeping him comfortable. A recent study also found firocoxib effective in controlling osteoarthritis related pain. Other NSAIDs are effective as well, however as Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc, noted in an article on the topic, potential side effects of some drugs--such as phenylbutazone--can be damaging.

"While many horses tolerate Bute well, serious and potentially life-threatening side effects can occur, such as gastric ulcers, kidney dysfunction, and right dorsal colitis (diarrhea)," she writes. "According to experts, there is extreme variability in how horses tolerate Bute administration (even when administered at recommended doses), and some horses cannot tolerate even short-term administration of the drug.

"Firocoxib, a COX-2 inhibitor, is reportedly a safer NSAID than Bute," she continues. "Another option for managing osteoarthritis is the use of a topical NSAID (1% diclofenac sodium, trade name Surpass), which is only minimally absorbed systemically, but can ameliorate the clinical signs of osteoarthritis."

Finally, researchers are continuously working with regenerative medicine and gene therapy to find new treatment options for equine osteoarthritis. I don't have any experience with these procedures or treatments, but research reports seem encouraging.

In my view, working with a veterinarian is key to controlling osteoarthritis, as is learning everything you can about the disorder. On Thursday, TheHorse.com will be hosting an Ask the Vet Live event on equine osteoarthritis, where you'll have a chance to submit your questions about the ailment to two veterinarians. We've had some great questions come in so far, so I hope you'll join us to learn more about the disease. I know I'll be there!

In the mean time, have you ever managed a senior horse with osteoarthritis? What worked, and what didn't? Share your experiences below!