Horse Side Vet Guide ®

Equine Health Resource

Swelling of Multiple Joints

Code Red - Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours

Code Yellow - Contact Your Vet at Your Convenience for an Appointment

Code Red - Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours

  • If the horse is reluctant to move, along with this sign.
  • If lameness is noticeable at the walk.
  • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) in the resting horse indicate fever (Temp >101F/38.3C) or heart rate greater than 48 BPM.
  • If the horse seems stiff, or digital pulse is present.

Code Yellow - Contact Your Vet at Your Convenience for an Appointment

  • If you consider this a chronic and relatively mild problem that is not changing rapidly.
  • If you do not notice lameness or pain, only a swelling.

Joint swelling results from excess fluid within the joint capsule, thickening of the structures surrounding the joint, or a combination of both. Swelling of multiple joints is relatively rare in horses.

It can result from conformation or wear-related causes. This is common in performance horses of any discipline that have had long careers of heavy or fast work. Many of these old campaigners have multiple fetlock joints and tendon sheaths that contain excess fluid and thickened joint lining. This is a response to repetitive trauma over a long period. It may or may not be accompanied by lameness.

In younger horses with no history of repetitive work-related trauma, we consider inflammatory conditions, infectious diseases and developmental diseases like osteochondrosis (OCD) as being possible causes for swelling of multiple joints.

In foals, multiple swollen joints with severe lameness and reluctance to move is typical of infected (septic) joints, a life-threatening problem. Swelling above joints in growing horses is associated with inflammation and swelling of the growth plates (physitis).

WHAT TO DO

Assess the horse’s general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE), and assess the horse for lameness at the walk and trot. Consider the anatomy of the lower limb and compare opposite limbs. If the horse is lame, place them in a stall or small turnout until your vet can examine them.

WHAT YOUR VET DOES

Your vet considers the history and their exam findings to determine the most likely cause. The most common diagnostic test we use to assess the health of a joint is x-ray, but we also use many other diagnostics, depending upon the conditions we want to rule out.

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP

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