Drugs like phenylbutazone and flunixin (Banamine) do a great job of controlling pain. Unfortunately, these drugs come with side effects and aren’t always appropriate for long-term use in many horses. Intestinal tract ulceration, kidney damage and even interference with healing are risks of long-term use.
For long-term pain control, many people are turning to over-the-counter products with herbal or nutritionally based ingredients. We tried some of these products under a variety of conditions, from acute injuries and wounds to chronic arthritis pain, retirees to active performance horses. The test-horse candidates with chronic-pain problems were required to have a baseline level of discomfort that could be quantified on the standard lameness scale to minimize chances the natural waxing and waning of symptoms that often occurs in these horses could interfere with our interpretation of the responses.
There’s still no magic-bullet pill or miracle-in-a-syringe. Over-the counter pain products are part of a comprehensive plan to keep your horse comfortable:
• Never treat horses with severe acute pain without having a diagnosis first or getting your veterinarian’s approval. Influencing level of pain may make diagnosis more difficult or lead to the horse injuring itself further.
• Don’t count on herbal alternatives to control severe pain and inflammation. A few days of a prescription medication is usually in order in these situations. Once the acute situation is controlled, you may be able to switch. Discuss this with your vet.
• Try joint nutraceuticals before reaching for a pain product.
• Don’t use pain products as a short cut substitute for local therapy. Intensive cold treatments and wrapping work great for acute inflammation. Old, stiff joints and tendons/ligaments benefit from the use of warming liniments, wraps and sweats.
• With chronic sources of pain, make sure your horse’s trimming/shoeing and exercise schedule are appropriate. Consider use of support boots for lower-leg problems.
• Know your horse’s baseline level of pain/stiffness and never use a pain product to allow you to work the horse harder on a bad day.
As difficult as it is to stand by when the horse is in pain, we need to remember it is also a warning system. When a person has an injury, they can be told what they can and can’t do during the healing phases, to avoid reinjury or worsening. We don’t have that option with the horse, where pain is the only way they know to protect an area.
Horses with serious problems like fractures, bowed tendons, torn ligaments or laminitis need that pain input. Control pain to the point the horse is eating, drinking, urinating and passing manure normally, but still aware enough of the problem to avoid normal weightbearing.
Although we had no adverse reactions in our trial, it’s important to remember that the words “natural” and “over-the-counter” aren’t the same as 100% safe. Individual sensitivity/allergy to any herbal is always possible. Devil’s claw can cause some stomach upset in a small percentage of human users and may do the same in horses.
Caution is particularly indicated in horses known to have ulcers and prone to going off feed, although the risk is still much less than with NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like bute.
Plant antioxidants, including bioflavonoids, herbs like curcurmin, and salicylate- containing plants, can all influence clotting mechanisms. This is often of benefit in inflammatory conditions and not likely to cause any bleeding problems, but care should be taken to inform your veterinarian when you use these if the horse needs surgery, and they can have effects on clotting when drugs like heparin, Warfarin or aspirin are used.
A variety of ingredients may appear in products that are said to target pain. Devil’s claw, which has shown an effectiveness level similar to many prescription drugs in both human trials and laboratory studies, is a common ingredient. Also popular are plants with naturally occurring salicylates (aspirin family), like meadowsweet and white willow. Cat’s claw, turmeric, boswellia, yucca and curcumin have also been found to have anti-inflammatory activity, as do bioflavonoids and other plant based antioxidants.
In our trial, devil’s claw products once again emerged as the most potent and reliable in terms of reduction of pain in both acute and chronic problems, as well as control of swelling. Most rapid results, and at the best price, were obtained with B-L Solution, which contains Devil’s Claw, vitamin B12 and Yucca.
The powdered Devil’s Claw products DC-Y and Devil’s Claw Plus were effective but took a bit longer to reach full effects.
A standout in the chronic pain category was Pain X. This product works differently from the others, by influencing pain perception in the brain. Chronic arthritis pain and stiffness doesn’t always have a large inflammatory component. The Pain X helped these horses when joint nutraceuticals and anti-inflammatory pain supplements weren’t enough.