A Brief Guide to Arthritis in Horses

arthritis in horses

Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD) is one of the most common causes of lameness in horses, causing pain and discomfort. It is also known as arthritis and can occur in any joint of the horse’s body that experiences wear and tear over time. DJD can be caused by age, conformation, or trauma, and typically affects older horses. It is important to recognize the signs of DJD early so that appropriate treatment can be initiated and the horse’s quality of life maintained.

Symptoms of DJD in Horses

The signs of DJD in horses vary depending on the location and severity of the disease. Common symptoms include heat, swelling, and pain when a joint is manipulated. Stiffness in the affected joint may also be present after periods of rest or exercise. Lameness may be observed if the disease is severe enough to affect multiple joints or if the horse is in a lot of pain. Weight shifting, shortened strides and decreased mobility can also be seen.

Different Types of Joints 

There are three main types of joints in horses:


Synarthroses are the most immobile type of joint and attach two bones together with fibrous tissue. These joints have no joint capsule, allowing only limited movement between them. Examples of synarthroses include the midline sutures in a horse’s skull.


Amphiarthroses are partially movable joints. Examples of these include the sacroiliac joint, sternum-ribs joint and pubic symphysis. These joints have cartilage between the bones that allows for slight movement but with little freedom.


Diarthroses are the most mobile type of joint and allow for a wide range of movement. The majority of the joints in the horse’s body are diarthrosis, including those in the spine, and limbs.

Typically, these joints will have a joint capsule as well as the cartilage between the bones to protect them from wear and tear. This type of joint is especially vulnerable to arthritis and degenerative joint disease due to the increased amount of movement.

Diagnosis of DJD in Horses

A veterinarian can diagnose DJD in horses by performing an extensive physical examination. X-rays and ultrasound imaging may be used to identify changes in the joint such as bone spurs, cartilage damage and fluid buildup. Ultrasound can also help assess the degree of inflammation present. A sample of the synovial fluid within the joint may be taken and evaluated for the presence of inflammatory cells. Blood tests may also be used to rule out other causes of lameness, such as infection or trauma.

Treatment for DJD in Horses

Once a diagnosis of DJD is made, the goal of treatment is to reduce pain in the affected joint and improve the horse’s mobility.

Physical Treatment

Regular physical therapy is important to keep joints mobile and can help reduce stiffness and pain. This may include massage, hydrotherapy, and stretching exercises. An exercise program can also be beneficial; however, it should be tailored to the individual horse’s abilities and limitations.

Pharmacological Treatment

Pharmacological treatment of degenerative joint disease (DJD) in horses is aimed at reducing inflammation, pain and stiffness, protecting the joint cartilage from further damage, and improving lubrication of the affected joints. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as phenylbutazone, flunixin meglumine, and ketoprofen are commonly used to reduce the pain and inflammation associated with DJD. Corticosteroids such as prednisolone and triamcinolone may be recommended in more severe cases of arthritis. Hyaluronic acid injections can also improve joint lubrication and protect the cartilage from damage. 

In cases of severe DJD, surgery may be recommended to replace the affected joint with a prosthetic device. This procedure is known as arthroplasty and can improve mobility and reduce pain in horses with advanced arthritis. However, this option is not suitable for all cases and should only be considered after other treatments have been attempted.

Alternative therapies

Alternative therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic, and massage may also be used to help manage the signs of DJD in horses. Acupuncture involves inserting small needles into specific body points and is thought to reduce inflammation and pain while improving blood circulation. Chiropractic treatments involve the manipulation of the joints to restore movement and musculoskeletal balance. Massage can be used to improve muscle tone and joint range of motion. These therapies should always be employed under the guidance of a veterinarian or other qualified professional.

Without any formal research, it is unlikely for veterinarians to suggest alternative therapies as an efficient treatment for DJD.


It is important to remember that arthritis/DJD cannot be cured, but its effects can be managed with treatment and lifestyle changes to help improve the horse’s quality of life. The prognosis is generally good with a combination of therapy, exercise, and nutrition. While some horses may go on to live relatively normal lives with the condition, it is important that the owner be alert for signs of pain or lameness so that treatment can be started promptly to reduce discomfort and improve quality of life.


What makes horse arthritis worse?

Horse arthritis can be exacerbated by certain management practices such as excessive exercise, hard surfaces and inadequate nutrition. Other factors such as obesity, injury and genetic predisposition may also contribute to the progression of arthritic changes in horses.

What is the best thing for arthritis in horses?

The best course of action to help manage arthritis in horses is a combination of rest and exercise, with the goal of finding an appropriate balance between both. Along with this, it is important to provide good nutrition and supplements to help support healthy joint function. Medication may also be necessary depending on the severity of the condition. Your veterinarian can advise you on the best treatment plan for your horse.

What can stop arthritis from progressing?

There is no known cure for arthritis in horses, but there are steps that can be taken to slow the progression of the disease. These include providing adequate exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and diet, and avoiding activities and environments that could cause further injury or stress to affected joints. In addition, regular monitoring by your veterinarian can help catch any changes early and provide the opportunity for quick treatment.

Should you exercise a horse with arthritis?

Exercise is an important part of managing arthritis in horses. Regular exercise helps maintain muscle tone and joint flexibility, which can reduce the discomfort associated with arthritis and help slow the progression of the disease. However, it is important to customize any exercise program for your horse’s individual needs. Your veterinarian will be able to recommend a specific exercise program that is most beneficial for your horse’s condition. Generally, the exercise should involve low-impact activities such as walking, jogging, and swimming. Keep in mind that the amount of exercise should be altered based on weather conditions and your horse’s current symptoms.


National Equine Health Survey (2016).

Regenerative Therapies for Equine Degenerative Joint Disease: A Preliminary Study

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