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Types of Bone Spavins

16 August 2011 No Comment

Types of Bone Spavins
By Dr. Jessica Jahiel

Dear Jessica,
pictures of horses with Dr. Jessica Jahiel
My question is about spavins. We have a Quarter Horse gelding that is almost nine years old, and he’s been lame off and on for about three months now. We couldn’t find an injury or a lump or anything, and we called the vet right away, he couldn’t find anything, then he came back yesterday and looked at Rio again and said it looked to him like Rio had spavin. He said we could bute him and go ahead and ride him and he’d get over it eventually, or we could NOT bute him and go ahead and ride him and he’d get over it faster. That doesn’t make any sense to me. I looked up spavin online and found a lot of things that seemed to contradict each other and nothing sounded like what Rio had. Our vet said it was a “colt spavin”, so I guess it’s something that happens only in male horses. I couldn’t find any references to colt spavin anywhere. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to do good research. Can you help, please? We want to do what’s best for Rio, and we know that long-term bute isn’t good for horses. But why would he heal faster without medication? Our vet is very busy, and he’s old. He’s a good vet, all the animals like him, but he doesn’t bother with people much, and he’s not much on explaining things. What he told us about bute and riding was a long explanation, for him! You’re so good at explaining vet and medical things in ways that normal people can understand. Please help us.


Hi Daphne!

I know a lot of vets like yours – very good at communicating with and dealing with animals (which is what matters most, after all) but not quite as good at communicating with their owners. Your vet actually gave you what you needed: a diagnosis and a sensible – if brief – course of action to follow. I’ll give you some information about spavins and treatment options, and you can use that information as a basis for the NEXT talk you have with your vet, which should be soon.

Don’t worry about your ability to look things up! The reason you couldn’t find anything in your searches because there’s no such thing as “colt spavin”. I think that you probably misheard your vet. If you search under “blind spavin” you’ll probably find quite a lot of information. Another name for “blind spavin” is “occult spavin” – because the damage is hidden from view and doesn’t create a visible lump on the hose’s leg. And if you’re worrying about your horse and you aren’t expecting to hear the word “occult” from your vet, you could very easily hear the term as “colt spavin.”

Let me backtrack a little bit here. “Spavin” is just a word that’s used to describe just about any bump or lump on the hock (with the exception of a cap, obviously). There are different terms for different types of spavin. The term used to describe a particular spavin will depend on exactly where the spavin is on the hock – and also on what caused it.

“Bone spavin” means new bone growth – usually in the form of a bony lump. You can feel a bone spavin – it’ll be a hard lump on the inside of the hock – but not all bone spavins lead to lameness, so it’s always a good idea to have some x-rays taken. Those can tell you exactly where the lump is, and how much damage there is. The lump can cause some lameness, but it’s also very possible that the lump is a result of the problem that is causing the lameness. Bone spavins – new bone growth – are usually the result of arthritis or some other condition that causes the cartilage to wear away.

“Occult spavin” or “blind spavin” is just a form of bone spavin. Again, it’s usually the result of arthritis slowly destroying cartilage – after a while, instead of cartilage-covered bone ends sliding past one another, there are bare bone ends scraping and rubbing against one another, and that’s when (and where) the body starts to lay down new supplies of bone.

With an occult spavin, it’s the lower joints of the hock that are involved. The damage and the bone growth happens between the bones that make up those lower joints, and that’s why there’s nothing you can see or feel on the outside of the hock.

There are a couple of other types of spavin. A hard lump on the inside of the hock toward the front is called a “jack spavin”. A “bog spavin” is a soft, sometimes even squashy, swelling higher on the hock, to the inside of the leg and toward the front of the hock. Bog spavins can be large and highly visible, and make horse-owners very nervous, but they’re just lumps – not lamenesses. A horse that steps into a hole can develop a soft lump where tissue was pulled and slightly damaged – just as you can develop a soft lump if you take a bad step and “go over on” your ankle.

And now, back to your horse. Your vet’s advice was good. Occult spavin in the lower joints of the hocks is a “bad news, good news” situation: The bad news is that the horse is in pain, and the joints are being damaged, and continued damage will eventually result in the removal of the protective layer of cartilage and the fusion of those joints through new bone growth. The good news is that those joints CAN safely fuse – and once they have fused, the horse’s pain will be gone and you’ll have your happy, comfortable riding horse back.

The reason that your horse will heal more quickly without bute is that the erosion of cartilage and the production of new bone will happen more quickly if the inflammation is allowed to run its course. If you give your horse bute or any other anti-inflammatory medication, you can relieve some of the pain – BUT you are interfering with the inflammation, and thus interfering with (and slowing) the process of destruction-fusion-healing. That’s why your vet said that Rio would heal more quickly without the medication.

If you want to help Rio’s hocks fuse in as short a time as possible, you’ll see to it that he gets regular daily exercise, even if it’s just half an hour of trotting under saddle around a large field, or out on the trail. While you’re riding him for this purpose, he will be in pain, so don’t try to do training or introduce new skills, and don’t work him in circles or on tight turns. Trotting on long straight lines and around gradual curves will get the job done without forcing him to hurt other parts of his body in an effort to compensate.

Your job will be to find a balance between the amount of inflammation necessary to produce fusion, and the level of discomfort that would keep Rio from moving around. Some horses are simply “off” but not miserable – they can be ridden without any medication, and should complete the fusion fairly quickly. Other horses experience much more pain, and these horses may need some medication just so that you’ll be able to ride them enough to help the fusion process along (but not so much medication that the process is made drastically slower).

Those are the traditional options for dealing with occult spavin. There may be others, depending on how far advanced Rio’s condition is, and you may want to ask your vet to take some X-rays. There’s a point at which the destruction of cartilage is far enough along that the best possible course is to allow it to finish so that the hocks can fuse. But if the cartilage is just beginning to deteriorate, it’s sometimes possible to stop the deterioration, preserve the cartilage, and help the bones of the joints continue to slide over one another instead of rubbing and destroying cartilage.

If your horse’s spavin is just beginning to develop, it’s possible that he could benefit from a more aggressive treatment protocol. If you decide to get X-rays, ask your vet about the condition of the joints, and discuss the possibility of a course of Legend and Adequan. Your vet would need to be involved here, as there would be a series of injections involved. Legend is a hyaluronic acid product, and requires to be administered intravenously on a weekly basis, usually for three weeks in a row. Sometimes a horse needs to continue the injections on a once-a-month basis, as a “maintenance” treatment. These injections can help reduce the inflammation – without the nasty side effects of bute.

Adequan is another inflammation-reducer. It’s a synthetic PSGAG (for polysulfated lycosaminoglycans – basically amino sugars that help build joint cartilage), and is generally used with Legend to stop the destruction of cartilage. It’s even possible that this combination (Legend and Adequan) may even help heal the cartilage – in some cases when the diagnosis is made early and the treatment is begun immediately. You and your vet will need to determine whether this is even a possibility in your horse’s case.

Even if the destruction of the cartilage in Rio’s hocks has been going on for some time, and there is not real chance to heal it, you may still want to consider the Legend/Adequan treatment and then follow it up with a good oral supplement such as Cosequin. Once the fusion is accomplished, you’ll want to make your horse as comfortable as possible. In the meantime, laser treatments can help relieve pain, and there are local treatments – various creams, usually Capsaicin-based – that can help too. You can apply the creams yourself. Like bute, they’ll reduce the pain somewhat, but they won’t remove the inflammation – and remember, if your goal is to help your horse’s hocks fuse as quickly as possible, you need that inflammation!

I’ve just been discussing this matter with someone who is trying to make a much older horse comfortable in the same situation. In her case, and in yours, there’s a bit of a balancing act involved – the horses need to be kept comfortable enough that they can be ridden daily, but the point of the exercise is to help accelerate the process of fusion, so whatever you use to keep them comfortable, it can’t be large amounts of substances that take away that all-important inflammation.

Good luck, and remember, you MUST work with your vet on this. Make a list of the questions you want to ask, ask each one, and give your vet time to formulate a good answer. If you don’t understand something about the answer, ASK! You have to work together to decide what’s best for your particular horse, and then DO what’s best. And don’t forget that a year from now, all of this will probably be in the past, and your horse will be comfortable again.

To find out more about Dr. Jessica Jahiel, click here!

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