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Signs of Horse Arthritis and Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD)

The best way of preventing crippling degenerative joint disease (DJD) and arthritis in horses is to detect the signs early. However, the earliest signs of joint problems are subtle. Owners must look for signs such as mild swelling and heat in the joint, rather than the lameness that accompanies more advanced cases.
There are some other early warning signs of equine arthritis. Changes in behavior or performance, such as a new reluctance to change leads, run barrels, set a steer or take jumps, can signify the onset of early joint disease.

While all horses have some risk of developing joint problems and DJD, there are several factors that owners should be aware of that increase a horse’s risk.

A horse with crooked legs or who toes in or toes out places uneven pressure on its joints. For example, a horse who toes out experiences greater pressure on the inner aspect of the coffin, pastern, fetlock and knee joints than on the outer side. This uneven pressure predisposes the joints to inflammation and soft tissue damage, as well as uneven wear on the cartilage. This can lead to DJD.

Also, just like in humans, older horses are more prone to arthritis. From birth until the age of two, a horse’s joints grow cartilage more quickly than it can be worn away. This growth rate slows after the age of two until it is roughly equal to the rate of normal wear. After the age of fifteen, however, the wear and tear on cartilage begins to outpace the rate of its replacement.

This results in a general thinning of cartilage, which increases the impact between bones and results in greater risk of joint injury. Also, the tendons and ligaments lose elasticity as horses age. This increases their susceptibility to tears, and can cause joint instability and increase inflammation.

Since all joints and all horses are unique, and their response to injury is slightly different, early signs of joint problems can be hard to spot. The earliest signs are usually heat or swelling of the affected joint, pain when the joint is flexed, and various degrees of lameness.

When your veterinarian examines your horse, he will usually observe it trotting both in a straight line and in circles on a hard surface. He may also use local anesthesia for nerve blocks, as well as x-rays, ultrasound, and take joint fluid samples for analysis. He may also want to perform an arthroscopic examination, which involves the insertion of a tiny flexible scope into the joint to look for damage.

Once your vet has determined which joints are affected, he will usually order additional x-rays to help determine the severity of the damage. This will also rule out other joint disorders and injuries, such as fractures, loose bone fragments, or foreign bodies.

Read the next horse diseases article on Arthritis Treatments for Horses.
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