Don’t get me wrong, I believe modern Western medicine has made some remarkable advances in our health. Many of the drugs that have been developed in recent decades have helped people and animals tremendously and saved many lives, no doubt. But it seems we, Westerners have a tendency to go overboard sometimes–and I believe that includes the use of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicine. I’m a proponent of a holistic approach to health. And to me, that means being proactive, looking at the whole picture, and using a balanced approach to treatment.
Many drugs are overused in the horse industry, in my opinion–with the popular non-steroidal anti-inflamatory (NSAID), phenylbutazone, or bute as it’s commonly referred to, being one of them. It seems to be the common ‘pill for the equine ill’– with owners giving bute to their horses for a vast array of reasons.
Now, I’m not afraid to give bute occasionally. In fact, I gave my horse, Bob, a dose (as advised by my vet) to relieve swelling and pain related to pigeon fever recently. Bute is often prescribed for inflammation, soft tissue injuries, and musculo-skeletal conditions. When used appropriately and for some acute (short-term) conditions, I think bute can be helpful.
But, we have to keep in mind that bute is a pain reliever– it doesn’t cure the source of the pain–it merely masks it for a while. The pain is there for a reason. It sends a message to the horse (and hopefully to the owner!) that something is wrong and healing needs to occur. Pain tells the horse to slow down, to rest, and to protect the injury. If we numb that pain and continue to use the horse for for the sake of our own enjoyment, we’re likely going to make the problem worse.
When we’re dealing with chronic conditions, like arthritis, bute or other NSAIDs aren’t a good choice. There are documented negative side effects to long-term use of bute, including:
- stomach ulcers;
- mouth ulcers;
- right dorsal colitis (ulcers in the colon); and
- kidney damage.
For long term or more frequent use, there are some generally safe and natural alternatives to bute or NSAIDs (keep in mind that any horse could possibly have a reaction to any substance though, incuding natural herbs). The following are a few natural alternatives to bute–they all have natural pain relieving and/ or anti-inflammatory effects:
- Acupressure/ Acupuncture;
- Physical Therapy (such as cold/heat therapy, stretching, massage, etc);
- Herbs such as Devil’s Claw, White Willow Bark, Turmeric, or Meadowsweet; and
- Joint Nutraceuticals (such as glucosamine and chondroitin).
I have used most of these natural alternatives with good results. When my mare, LeeLee, suffered a suspensory ligament injury several years ago, I put her on Devil’s Claw for several months. Believe it or not, the injury was so bad at first, I had considered putting her down. I saw a remarkable difference in her within the first week of putting her on Devil’s Claw though.
Although I’ve never had Bob’s hocks x-rayed, I suspect he has arthritis in his left hock. He will occasionally be gimpy on it. Twice, I’ve put him on a round of glucosamine chondroitin, and again, noticed results within a short amount of time. If you’re not convinced about glucosamine and/or chondroitin’s effectiveness, especially on equine osteoarthritis, I suggest reading my study-based article that was published in The Horse last year. Dr. Eleanor Kellon has also performed quite a few studies on nutraceuticals. Her book, Horse Journal: Guide to Equine Supplements and Nutraceuticals is a great reference book to have on hand.
As with any injury or illness with your horse, you should always seek veterinary advice. Some severe and acute conditions may call for the use of drugs, including the temporary use of bute. For chronic conditions or more minor injuries, talk with your vet about these bute alternatives though. Many vets may recommend them.
For more information on bute alternatives, I recommend this article, by Dr. Christine King.