Published: August 2020 | Updated: May 2023
When you think about “inflammation”, your first thoughts probably have a negative connotation, but inflammation isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. Rather, inflammation is actually the immune system’s natural defense mechanism when something such as infection, injury, or toxins has caused harm to bodily tissues
To put it simply, inflammation is part of the body’s normal immune response and natural healing process. This is true for us as well as our horses.
However, inflammation becomes problematic when it becomes chronic, occurring over a long period of time or becoming cyclical. Some examples of chronic inflammation include conditions like osteoarthritis, recurrent uveitis, or equine metabolic syndrome, and these types of detrimental diseases often require some form of intervention.
The Inflammatory Response Process
The inflammatory process begins with acute inflammation, which typically lasts between 1-3 days. During this time period, damaged cells release chemicals including histamine, bradykinin, and prostaglandins which cause blood vessels to leak fluid into tissues and cause swelling. This serves to isolate foreign substances from further contact with bodily tissues. These chemicals also attract white blood cells called phagocytes that engulf bacteria and dead or damaged cells.
Acute inflammation is characterized by the 5 classic signs:
- Loss of Function
From there, the affected tissue enters the subacute inflammation phase, which can last anywhere from another 3 days up to four weeks, depending on the specific cause, the extent of tissue injury, as well as the horse’s immune system. This is when the body works to clean out dead cells and also repair damaged cells to fully restore tissue health.
If the body cannot move through the subacute phase on its own (or with the help of anti-inflammatory supplements/medications), T lymphocytes and plasma cells will migrate to the site of inflammation, tissue may begin degenerating, and fibrosis (development of fibrous connective tissue) will likely occur as chronic inflammation sets in.
NSAIDs for Horses: What Can You Give a Horse for Inflammation?
You may already be familiar with what NSAIDs are. If not, the acronym stands for Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs, and chances are, you have used them before. Certain equine NSAIDs such as phenylbutazone (bute) or Flunixin Meglumine (Banamine) are commonly used short term for acute inflammation pain in order to make your horse more comfortable.
NSAIDs reduce inflammation by inhibiting cyclooxegenase (COX) function. Researchers are aware of at least three COX isoforms, but only COX-1 and COX-2 are relevant in horses. COX-1 is present in nearly all tissues and is needed for proper gastrointestinal and renal function, as well as blood clotting. COX-2 is also present in low levels in many tissues and supports normal kidney function.
NSAIDs can be helpful in many instances, but they do not come without potential side effects. As a result, these drugs should never be relied on long term, as extended use can lead to adverse health issues, especially in the gut. Over-reliance on these drugs can lead to colic, intestinal bleeding, or ulcers. No thanks!
Cox-2 selective NSAIDs such as firocoxib (Equioxx), work a little differently to achieve the same anti-inflammatory effect. These types of NSAIDs are more gut friendly, but it’s important to understand that they can still cause harm to either the kidneys or possibly the GI system if used long term.
The Best Anti-Inflammatory for Horses: Alternatives to NSAIDs
With all the nasty side effects associated with NSAIDs, natural anti-inflammatories for horses are of interest to the progressive equine owner and manager.
One of the best ways to ease inflammation and pain is through either cold water or cryotherapy (ice therapy) or both. Cold water hosing can be done at the site of injury for approximately ten minutes twice daily. Homemade or commercially-available ice wraps can be used to combat lower limb inflammation as well. When used together, these two natural anti-inflammatory therapies may be even more therapeutic.
Three main effects can be achieved by both cold water or cryotherapy:
- Pain relief (analgesia) by serving to slow electrical signals from the site of injury to the horse’s central nervous system.
- Hypometabolism by reducing metabolic rate of targeted cells. Cold water or ice decreases the amount of oxygen and glucose cells need to survive. This helps prevent effects of oxygen deprivation (hypoxic damage).
- Vasoconstriction or narrowing of the blood vessels, which decreases the amount of blood and therefore, decreasing edema as well.
A number of herbs and natural ingredients have also been well-studied and have shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, especially for chronic conditions such as arthritis. These are usually safer to use long-term with horses. Some of these include:
- Devil’s Claw
- Omega-3s (such as flaxseed or chia seeds)
Talk to your veterinarian about using any of the above though as some may have contraindications with certain medications.
Another option that many people might not automatically think of when it comes to combatting inflammation is probiotics. Studies show that some types, such as Saccharomyces boulardii, can help manage inflammation due to their ability to down-regulate pro-inflammatory cytokines, the proteins that lead to activation of immune cells and production, as well as the release of further cytokines (which can cause what is known as a “cytokine storm”).
Other beneficial bacteria found in probiotics can have an impact on inflammation as well, possibly reducing common biomarkers present with inflammation, including C-reactive protein (CRP).
Likewise, joint inflammation (such as that occurring with equine osteoarthritis in many performance horses) is often connected to inflammation within the intestinal tract, which leads to increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut). As you may know from our previous posts, probiotics play a major role in solving this problem.
Summing It Up
It’s important to keep in mind that, in many cases, inflammation is a normal part of the healing process. However, if you suspect that your horse has chronic inflammation, talk to your veterinarian as soon as possible and devise a management plan that will help treat the root cause. Managing inflammation while providing gut health support is also extremely important. By doing so, you can provide the best shot at making your horse more comfortable and improving his or her overall quality of life.
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