Osteochondrosis (OCD) in Horses

What is osteochondrosis (OCD)?

Osteochondrosis (also known as OCD) is a common, painful disease in horses. It is characterized by an abnormality in the cartilage-to-bone transformation. As a result, cartilage and bone fragments may break off into the joint space. Osteochondrosis (OCD) is not a form of arthritis, however, it often leads to arthritis. Rapidly growing larger breeds of horse have a genetic predisposition towards the condition. (The pain from osteochondrosis is similar to the “growing pains” experienced by adolescents.)

Cartilage is the tissue, normally at the ends of long bones, which contributes to pain-free motion. Osteochondrosis (OCD) is a congenital defect in normal joint cartilage development that leads to the development of a loose piece or flap of cartilage. This loose piece or flap can give rise to secondary degenerative joint disease. Secondary degenerative joint disease that develops as a result of osteochondrosis, generally occurs early in the horse’s life as opposed to the “wear and tear” arthritis that many horses experience later in life.

Is my horse likely to develop OCD?

Larger breeds of horse that grow quickly are more likely to develop osteochondrosis. Certain lifestyle factors may also affect the likelihood of your horse developing osteochondrosis (OCD) see Reducing the risk of osteochondrosis (OCD)

What are the symptoms of osteochondrosis?

The symptoms of osteochondrosis (OCD) depend on the area that is affected by the condition. Stiffness, lameness and pain in the affected joint are common signs that a horse may have developed osteochondrosis (OCD). (Unlike other animals, a horse with osteochondrosis (OCD) does not always experience pain.)

The horse may try and compensate for the lameness by restricting movement of the affected joint. If the leg is affected, the horse may swing its leg outward in a circular motion to avoid bending the leg. Although osteochondrosis (OCD) usually affects both sides, one leg is often worse than the other. The horse may therefore take extra weight on the better leg, resulting in decreased muscle development in the other leg affected by osteochondrosis (OCD).

OCD treatment options for your horse

The treatment for osteochondrosis (OCD) is geared towards inhibiting further breakdown of the joint cartilage and bone and decreasing the pain your horse may experience. Various medical and surgical treatments are available today that can ease your horse’s discomfort and restore mobility. The type of treatment depends upon several factors, such as the age of the horse, the severity of the problem and financial considerations. Management of osteochondrosis (OCD) usually consists of exercise restriction, body weight management and symptomatic pain management with analgesics and anti-inflammatory drugs.

Exercise Control

Restricting the amount and intensity of a horse’s activity has been shown to reduce the incidence of osteochondrosis (OCD). Flaps of cartilage that have not yet broken away from their underlying bone may heal back if the affected joint use is not too intense or prolonged. Horses should participate in only regular short walks until they have finished growing. This recommendation is particularly important if the horse already has osteochondrosis (OCD).

Dietary Restriction

Overfeeding contributes significantly to the development of many orthopedic conditions in horses, including osteochondrosis (OCD). If your horse has osteochondrosis (OCD), you should discontinue any vitamin or mineral supplements unless specified by your veterinarian. (Consult your veterinarian about the appropriate feed for your horse.) Reduce your horse’s total calorie intake to that recommended by the feed company and your veterinarian.


Analgesic and anti-inflammatory medications – Ideally, these should only be used for the short term, when necessary to encourage movement. Although your horse may respond quickly to anti-inflammatories, this is usually because they are quelling pain, and not because the condition itself is improving. In most cases these medications act simply as painkillers, and should only be used in addition to lifestyle modifications including weight control and good exercise management.

Commonly used analgesics and anti-inflammatories include acetaminophen and various NSAIDs (non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs).


For mild to moderate osteochondrosis in horses, your veterinarian may recommend acetaminophen (Tylenol®, Panadol®, Exdol®, etc.) to relieve pain. Since acetaminophen is only a pain reliever and has no anti-inflammatory properties, it can generally be safely combined with anti-inflammatory medications when recommended by a veterinarian.

Too-high doses of acetaminophen can cause liver damage. You should therefore seek a veterinarian’s advice before administering acetaminophen.


NSAIDs are a type of medication that helps reduce pain and swelling of the joints and decreases stiffness. When taken at a low dose, NSAIDs reduce pain; when taken at a higher dose, NSAIDs can also reduce inflammation. NSAIDs do not prevent joint damage and when used over the long-term, may accelerate joint breakdown. Taking more than one NSAID at a time increases the possibility of severe side effects such as ulcers and bleeding. The newer sub-class of NSAIDs, known as Cox-2 Inhibitors (used currently for companion animals), includes Rimadyl® (carprofen), Metacam® (meloxicam) and Etogesic® (etodolac).


Cortisone is a corticosteroid that reduces inflammation and swelling. For severe pain and inflammation, veterinarians may inject a corticosteroid, such as cortisone, directly into the affected joint/s. Cortisone mimics the anti-inflammatory effects of cortisol, which is a hormone naturally produced by the body. Although corticosteroids closely resemble cortisol, they exert a much more powerful anti-inflammatory effect. An injection can provide almost immediate relief for a tender, swollen and inflamed joint.

Pentosan polysulphate

Pentosan polysulphate (Cartrophen Vet®) is an injectable drug is given by injection at weekly intervals, usually on four separate occasions. The drug acts in many different ways, but primarily improves the environment of the joint cartilage. Painkillers are not allowed while pentosan polysulphate is being administered.


Visco-supplementation is the process of injecting a gel-like substance into the joint. This substance lubricates the cartilage, reducing pain and improving flexibility. Visco-supplementation decreases friction within the joint, thus reducing pain and allowing greater mobility. This method of treatment requires ongoing injections as benefits are only temporary. Substances used in visco-supplementation include hyaluronic acid, or HA (Legend®, Hylartin® and Synacid®), and poly-sulfated glycosaminoglycans (PSGAGS) such as Adequan®.

If your horse requires surgery

A number of surgical techniques are employed in the treatment of osteochondrosis (OCD). The goal of the surgical procedure is to remove any loose pieces of cartilage from the joint surface and curette (scrape) the cartilage defect to encourage the body to refill the “missing” areas. Surgery should always be considered a last resort, when all other attempts to help the condition have failed.

In some very young horses, the cartilaginous flap associated with osteochondrosis (OCD) may heal on its own. It is therefore worth asking your veterinarian if you should wait to see if the lameness disappears. Surgery should not be delayed too long, however, if the horse continues to exhibit lameness.

Surgery Follow-up

Following surgery, you will need to limit your horse’s exercise for a few weeks. This will reduce pain and minimize the chance of a pathologic fracture occurring. Follow your veterinarian’s instructions regarding physical therapy and medications.

Your veterinarian will usually prescribe pain medication to ensure your horse’s comfort, prior to osteochondrosis (OCD) surgery and in the aftercare period.

Reducing the risk of osteochondrosis (OCD)

Genetic influences, overweight, prolonged inactivity/intense activity and improper shoeing are all believed to contribute towards the likelihood of developing osteochondrosis (OCD).

Genetic influences

The tendency to develop osteochondrosis (OCD) is inherited, with larger, fast-growing breeds of horse being more likely to develop the condition. However, not all horses whose parents have osteochondrosis (OCD) will develop it themselves.

Dietary influences

Excess intake of calories, phosphorous and calcium is believed to play a part in the onset of osteochondrosis (OCD) in susceptible horses. Slowing the rate of growth of large breeds of horses has been shown to reduce the incidence of osteochondrosis (OCD). Your veterinarian will be able to recommend the most appropriate diet for your breed.


osteochondrosis (OCD) develops as a consequence of defective transformation of cartilage into bone. If a young horse overuses a joint affected by osteochondrosis (OCD), defective cartilage can separate from the bone to which it is attached. Separation of cartilage from bone causes pain and joint instability and initiates the development of secondary arthritis. (Many arthritic changes, such as bone spur formation, develop when the horse’s body attempts to stabilize the joint by adding “wedges” of bone.) By restricting the amount and intensity of the horse’s exercise, osteochondrosis (OCD) is less likely to occur.

Improper shoeing

Improper shoeing can cause many joint and muscle problems and is a significant factor in the progression of degenerative disease. An experienced and well-respected farrier will be able to ensure your horse is shoed correctly. Your veterinarian may be able to suggest a farrier who is capable and well respected.

For more information on helping your horse stay healthy, please see Tips for a Healthier Horse

Natural ways to help a horse with osteochondrosis (OCD)


Recovery®EQ with Nutricol®, is an elite proprietary performance and wellness supplement for horses that enhances quality of life.Recovery®EQ improves healing by increasing circulation of nutrients to affected cells and extracellular structures, halting tissue damage and modulating inflammation. It may be usedin combination with prescribed medications. Always consult with the veterinarian prior to adding a new natural lifestyle supplement to a horse’s feeding program.

Review in the prestigious Horse Journal in October and December 2003

Recovery®EQrated as “Best Performer Overall” as a pain-relieving supplement for joint pain, back pain and tendonitis – comparison of natural joint care supplements.

Review in the prestigious Horse Journal inJune 2006

“You get what you pay for” – Horse Journal quote about Recovery®EQ used as a performance enhancing supplement – comparison of natural performance enhancing supplements


Applying heat helps relax aching muscles and temporarily reduces joint pain. (Heat helps to reduce pain and stiffness by relaxing aching muscles and increasing circulation to the area). Applying cold helps to lessen joint pain and swelling (Cold helps numb the area by constricting the blood vessels and blocking nerve impulses in the joint.)

There is some concern that heat may worsen symptoms in an already inflamed joint so monitor your horse’s reaction carefully following application of heat. Applying ice or cold packs appears to decrease inflammation.