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Omega-3 Fatty Acids Beneficial to Joint HealthBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · October 15, 2015

Joint swelling and inflammation initiate the cascade of events that results in degeneration of the joint, especially to the articular cartilage lining the ends of long bones. The resulting condition, called osteoarthritis (OA) or degenerative joint disease, causes pain, lameness, decreased mobility, compromised quality of life, and sometimes leads to euthanasia of affected horses.

“There remains no cure for OA. Instead, veterinarians* recommend a multimodal approach to managing horses with a diagnosis of OA, involving both disease and symptom-modifying substances such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, joint injections, and nutritional supplements designed for joint health,” said Peter Huntington, B.V.Sc., M.A.C.V.Sc., director of nutrition at Kentucky Equine Research (Australia).   

Omega-3 fatty acids appear beneficial for a myriad of conditions, including reproductive, athletic, and respiratory disorders, to name only a few. Recently, some of the world’s most experienced arthritis researchers collaborated to better define the impact of a diet enriched in omega-3 fatty acids on joint disease.

The purpose of the study was to determine whether dietary supplementation with a commercial omega-3 fatty acid product could help sedentary horses with joint inflammation induced by an intra-articular injection, a recognized model for OA. The tested product contained 40 grams of fatty acids, including 1.93 g of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and 5.43 g of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) per 100 kg of body weight. Both EPA and DHA are the most well-known omega-3 fatty acids with known anti-inflammatory effects.

Key findings of the study were that after three months of supplementing with fatty acids:

  • Increased levels of EPA and DHA were found both in the circulation and in joint fluid in supplemented horses compared to control horses;
  • No change in several commonly used measures of joint inflammation were noted, but the expression of one measure, called “a disintegrin and metalloproteinase with thrombospondin motifs (ADAMTS)” was lower in supplemented horses.

The study authors concluded that despite the presence of EPA and DHA in the synovial fluid of supplemented horses, supplementation with that commercial product did not modify synovial fluid biomarkers compared to control horses. That said, the decrease in ADAMTS supports further investigation of omega-3 fatty acids as a joint therapy and/or chondroprotective agent.

“KER’s omega-3 fatty acid supplement, EO•3, is a potent marine-derived oil that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. It contains 25% EPA and DHA so 120 ml supplies 30 g of these biologically active fatty acids. It is a palatable oil that is top-dressed onto the feed, and could prove valuable in performance horses at risk of or with OA,” Huntington said.

See Young Horses in Training Benefit from Omega-3 Supplementation for a related article.

*Oke, S., and C.W. McIlwraith. 2010. Review of the economic impact of osteoarthritis and oral joint-health supplements in horses. Accessed September 5, 2015.

**Ross-Jones, T.N., McIlwraith, C.W., Kisiday, J.D., et al. Influence of an n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid-enriched diet on experimentally induced synovitis in horses. Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition. In Press.