Horse owners sought to test new osteoarthritis questionnaire

Can a simple questionnaire can help owners recognize signs of chronic osteoarthritis pain in their horses?
Can a simple questionnaire can help owners recognize signs of chronic osteoarthritis pain in their horses? Photo by Casey Horner

Horses diagnosed with chronic osteoarthritis (OA) are being sought for a study to ascertain whether a simple questionnaire could help owners recognize and monitor signs of pain in their horses.

Osteoarthritis can be a painful condition in horses but, unlike people, horses can’t talk with their veterinarians about where and how much it hurts. A recent survey of horse owners in the United Kingdom found that owners have limited ability to identify pain and disease in their horses, leading to a new study being funded by the Morris Animal Foundation.

Osteoarthritis 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.

Researchers are looking for a simple way of helping people to recognize chronic pain in their equine companions, helping their equine charges get earlier, more effective treatment and improving their quality of life.

This has led to the development of a 15-item questionnaire based on changes in horse behavior through interviews with owners of horses diagnosed with osteoarthritis. The questions cover posture, facial expressions, movement and behavior.

The work is being undertaken by 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, as the recipients of a Donor-Inspired Study grant funded by veterinarian Dr Wendy Koch. Koch has closely followed equine behavior and welfare research over the years and wanted to increase the amount of funding available for studies in these fields. She has supported the Foundation for nearly 30 years.

To effectively treat pain, caregivers and clinicians need a way of monitoring and quantifying the amount of discomfort felt.

“As veterinarians, we want to treat horses with painful and debilitating conditions like OA as effectively as possible,” de Grauw said. “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 de Grauw’s supervision, Howard developed the 15-item questionnaire and will validate it 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. The instrument 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.”

The Foundation’s Donor-Inspired Study program allows individual donors and foundations to directly support research topics for which they have a passion and there is a pressing need. Applications for this grant were reviewed and rated, based on impact and scientific rigor, by a scientific advisory board, made up of equine behavior and welfare experts.

» Do you have a horse with OA? Contact Diane Howard for further information.

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