Economic Impact of Osteoarthritis and Joint Health Supplements (AAEP 2010)

Osteoarthritis is expensive to manage, with estimated annual costs as high as $10,000-15,000 per horse to diagnose, treat, and medicate, explained Wayne McIlwraith, BVSc, PhD, DSc, FRCVS, Dipl. ACVS, director of the Orthopedic Research Center at Colorado State University, who discussed the economic impact of osteoarthritis and oral joint-health supplements (OJHS) at the 2010 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 4-8 in Baltimore, Md. In his review of a paper that he co-authored with Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc, McIlwraith explained that the value of a horse affected by osteoarthritis also decreases substantially.

The veterinary nutritional supplement industry collectively earns $2 billion per year, with more than half of that coming from the equine sector--34 % of equine products are OJHS. McIlwraith remarked that 89% of these nutraceuticals are purchased from sources other than veterinarians.

Of note, McIlwraith pointed out that in many cases these horses are rarely receiving a specific diagnosis if the joint-health product is not received directly through the veterinarian. Often, a horse presented to a veterinarian for lameness evaluation has received OJHS for months, with or without an accurate diagnosis. These OJHS are often used to manage osteoarthritis and navicular syndrome, and to control post-traumatic and post-surgical inflammation. And, despite a lack of objective data, many products are given prophylactically (preventively) to at-risk athletic horses, he said.

Recent studies in humans continue to yield contradictory results. Oral glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate supplements have not demonstrated a proven benefit for managing osteoarthritis despite years of favorable anecdotal reports. In light of this, McIlwraith stressed the need for validating products with in vivo (in the live horse) data and that drug manufacturers should be encouraged to do this. At this time there appears to be little incentive for drug companies to perform such studies, he explained.

Owners should be aware that poor product quality is possible--OJHS might not contain the type or amount of ingredients listed on the label, thereby leading to the administration of subtherapeutic doses. Contamination with heavy metals, toxic substances, and/or insecticides is also possible. Some individual horses might experience hypersensitivity reactions, gastrointestinal upset, or drug-herbal interactions with adverse effects. McIlwraith recommends using the ACCLAIM system developed by Oke: A name you recognize; Clinical experience; Contents; Label claims; Administration recommendations; Ingredients; Manufacturer information.

The nutritional supplement industry continues to grow despite the economic downturn, McIlwraith noted. Poor-quality and potentially harmful supplements are continually available to unsuspecting consumers. The American Veterinary Medical Association and AAEP advocate that veterinary use of these products remains within the bounds of an active valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship and that veterinarians stock the best-quality products for use in their equine patients.

About the Author

Nancy S. Loving, DVM

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her recent book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care (available at or by calling 800/582-5604). She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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