Drugs like phenylbutazone and flunixin (Banamine) do a great job of controlling pain and at an affordable price. Unfortunately, they come with side effects and aren’t appropriate for long-term use in many horses. Intestinal-tract ulceration, kidney damage and even interference with healing are all risks.
For long-term pain control, we prefer over-the-counter products with herbal or nutritionally based ingredients. Devil’s claw, which has shown an effectiveness similar to many prescription drugs in both human trials and laboratory studies, is a common ingredient. We find that devil’s claw-based products are the most potent and reliable in terms of reduction of pain in both acute and chronic problems, as well as control of swelling.
Other popular ingredients in these products 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 anti-oxidants.
A note of caution, though: 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.
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.
You should also realize that just because something is natural and available over the counter it isn’t necessarily 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 it’s possible that it could 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 NSAID medications like phenylbutazone. In addition, plant antioxidants, 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 are using these if the horse needs surgery, and they can have additive effects on clotting.