Osteoarthritis (OA) is a major cause of chronic pain in horses but is an underrecognized and undertreated condition. Though often associated with advanced age, it can also occur in young horses. In addition to being painful, OA can severely curtail a horse's athletic career, and impact the bond between horse and owner if the condition limits a horse's ability to be ridden. Controlling it often involves a combination of medication and management change and relies on the ability to monitor the response and make adjustments accordingly.
A new study is testing to see if a simple questionnaire can help horse owners recognize and monitor signs of chronic osteoarthritis (OA) pain in their horses – helping their equine charges get earlier, more effective treatment and improving their quality of life.
Dr. Janny de Grauw, from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and Diane Howard, PhD, MSc., Equine Science Master graduate from the University of Edinburgh, in the United Kingdom, are the recipients of a Donor-Inspired Study grant from the Morris Animal Foundation, funded by long-time supporter, Dr. Wendy Koch. Dr. Koch, a veterinarian, has closely followed equine behaviour and welfare research over the years and wanted to increase the amount of funding available for studies in these fields.
To effectively treat pain, caregivers and clinicians need a way of monitoring and quantifying the amount of discomfort felt. However, a survey of horse owners in the United Kingdom found that owners have limited ability to identify pain and disease in their horses, underlining the need for a simple way of helping people to recognize chronic pain in their equine companions.
“As veterinarians, we want to treat horses with painful and debilitating conditions like OA as effectively as possible,” said de Grauw. “How well we can manage their condition critically relies on recognition of subtle signs of (worsening) pain by owners and caregivers, who can then seek help.”\
Under Dr. de Grauw’s supervision, Howard developed the 15-item questionnaire based on changes in horse behaviour through interviews with owners of horses diagnosed with osteoarthritis. The questions cover posture, facial expressions, movement and behaviour.
She will validate the questionnaire by having 60 owners of horses with chronic OA pain and 20 owners of horses without OA complete it. The owners with OA horses will complete the questionnaire twice in two days while their horse’s pain does not fluctuate, to evaluate how robust and reproducible the scoring instrument is.
The research team hopes the easy-to-use questionnaire will help horse owners recognize when their animals are in pain and contact a veterinarian for appropriate treatment. It also may help owners monitor treatment effectiveness and pain progression over time, and guide owners and veterinarians in making quality-of-life decisions.
“Many horses may deal with pain that is not recognized, particularly in its early stages,” said Dr. Janet Patterson-Kane, Morris Animal Foundation Chief Scientific Officer. “Giving their caregivers effective tools for detection, monitoring and decision-making has the potential for significant animal welfare impact.”
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