Pain Management: How Veterinarians Reduce Pain in Horses

For veterinarians, looking after their equine patients, pain control is a high priority. Your veterinarian will be able to identify. And help treat the cause of your horse’s discomfort. 

There are some visible signs of pain. Such as intense rolling and kicking in the abdomen, suggestive of colic. But other signs of pain are more subtle.

Why is managing pain in horses important? 

An important aspect of horse health is protection from pain.

In recovering from injury or disease, pain control plays an important role. In humans, the advantages of adequate treatment are fewer complications. Also, quicker release from the hospital. And reduced development of chronic pain syndromes. 

Pain can adversely affect behavior and performance.

How can you know if your horse is in pain?

It is important to sense pain. If we can’t detect it then we can’t handle it effectively. It can be difficult to understand pain in horses. Horses are prey animals. And are programmed to conceal their susceptibility to predators instinctively. In showing signs of discomfort, horses are often noted for their individual variations. Highly nervous or temperamental horses, such as thoroughbreds… may be more likely to exhibit extreme pain than quiet, comfortable horses.

So, assessing pain in horses involves careful consideration. And interpretation of irregular, pain-related actions.


Signs of pain in horses

Horse pain symptoms may be subtle and non-specific. But signs that you can look for include:

Changes in behavior:

  • Restlessness
  • Shaking of the head
  • Dullness or depression
  • Signs of aggression
  • Reduced contact with the world
brown horse

Posture or action change:

  • Altered pose
  • Arched back
  • Movement resistance
  • Lowered head carriage
  • Stretching
  • Weight shifting or pawing 

Appetite change:

  • Lack of interest in food
  • Playing with water
  • Slow chewing or eating slowly

Shift in facial expression:

  • Fixed gaze with wide nostrils
  • Facial muscles clenched 
selective focus photography of horses

Pain with colic:

  • Rolling
  • Watching the flank
  • Kicking the abdomen
  • Pawing
  • Stretching
  • Groaning

Lameness:

  • Weight-shifting between the limbs
  • Irregular distribution of weight
  • Limb pointing
  • Hanging and spinning
  • Abnormal motion
  • Inability to move or function

Horses with laminitis have a traditional backward leaning posture. And have a gait of ‘pottery’. 

Ocular pain:

  • Keeping the eye closed
  • Pointing downward with the upper eyelashes
  • Increased tear production or discharge from the eye
  • Sensitivity to bright light

Dental pain:

  • Food dropping
  • Sluggish chewing
  • Inability to feed
  • Food pocketing or pouching in controls
  • Head tilting or nodding or irregular head carriage
  • Bit acceptance issues.

How to manage your horse’s pain?

The strategies used to treat your horse will depend on the pain’s duration, form and intensity. The first step is diagnosis and treatment of the underlying. And once this is achieved, a brief course of pain relief is also needed. But longer-term or inde nite therapy may be required in cases of chronic pain. To manage the comfort of the patient and improve their quality of life.

Horses who have osteoarthritis are the most common example of this. Health tests for horses receiving long-term care must be carried out every 6 months. Or more often in some cases. To ensure that the dosage is still adequate and to check for adverse side effects.

woman in beige coat standing beside brown horse during daytime

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

NSAIDs are the medication most widely used in horses for pain relief. Bute (e.g. Equipalazone), flunixin (e.g. Equinixin or Finadyne) and meloxicam (e.g. Metacam or In acam) are some examples. Such medicines ease discomfort. And help reduce inflammation and fever. They can be administered both orally and by injection. And are commonly used in the treatment of osteoarthritis, among many other conditions.


But these medications have side effects, like any medicine. And it is important to balance the benefits of treatment. With the risk of side effects. Gastrointestinal disorder (such as stomach ulcers, colon ulcers and diarrhoea) and kidney damage… are the side effects of NSAIDs. In sick or dehydrated horses, the risk of side effects is increased.

Medical symptoms of toxicity include loose droppings, colic, gastrointestinal tract ulceration… inadequate hair covering, increased drinking or urination, and weight loss. If you notice any of these symptoms in your horse, the drug should be stopped and you should talk to your vet.

Other possible options

Other options for pain relief are available. And are mostly used in conjunction with NSAIDs. Some of these can be given orally. While others can only be delivered by your veterinary surgeon’s injection. The use of several drug groups will maximize pain relief while reducing the risk of side effects. Methods such as physiotherapy, weight control, acupuncture and remedial shoeing… in addition to medical treatment, can also play a part in your horse’s pain management.

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