Pain Management

Pain Management

Tuesdays with Tony

     Sometimes, in between cat naps, I pay attention to what medications you humans are picking up at the front desk. Names like ‘Bute’ ‘Banamine’ and ‘Equioxx’ have become pretty familiar to me. So this week I asked the docs what some of these frequently used medications were for. They explained to me that these are all different drugs used to manage pain in horses. Their explanation was fascinating. I never knew how much was involved in choosing the right drugs to control a horse’s pain!
      The ideal pain medication would be one that worked great, lasted all day, had zero side effects, and cost next to nothing. Unfortunately, this medication does not yet exist. So, we have to compromise somewhere. You are either going to have to pay a little more for a medication that has fewer side effects, be willing to administer doses more frequently- up to every few hours, or choose the cheapest option, realizing it has a downside.


   When you think about managing pain in horses, Bute (generic for phenylbutazone) or Banamine (generic for flunixin meglumine) is probably the first drug to come to mind. These medications both fall into the category of NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. As the name implies, they are great at knocking out inflammation anywhere in the body. They also come in an easy-to-administer paste formulation, and they will keep working anywhere from 12 to 24 hours, which is super convenient. These drugs are both relatively inexpensive, with Bute being slightly more affordable than Banamine.
     The downside to Bute and Banamine, however, is the side effects. When given at a full dose for more than a few days, both of these drugs are notorious for causing right dorsal colitis, stomach ulcers, kidney damage, and liver damage. Right dorsal colitis is the most common and arguably the most serious of these side effects. This is an inflammatory condition of the large intestine which results in diarrhea, malabsorption of nutrients, ulceration, and leakage of GI contents. The condition is difficult to treat, can be life threatening, and often leaves the colon permanently damaged.
    NSAIDs cause right dorsal colitis and stomach ulcers because they knock out these little guys called prostaglandins. There are a couple different types. Several of them are inflammatory prostaglandins. When Bute and Banamine block these prostaglandins, it makes horses feel better. Other prostaglandins are involved in keeping the gut happy. When Bute and Banamine block these ‘good’ prostaglandins, you see the GI side effects described above.
     Now there is a newer NSAID which recently became available for horses called Equioxx. Equioxx is a COX-selective NSAID, which means it blocks the inflammatory prostaglandins without blocking the good ones. Equioxx is also super cool because it lasts so long- a good 24 hours- and it’s easy to give in the form of one tiny, tasteless pill. The disadvantage of Equioxx is that it is a fair bit more expensive than Bute, and anecdotally it doesn’t control pain quite as well as the other good old NSAIDs. However, if you have a horse with a history of GI ulcers or colitis, Equioxx is definitely your best bet.
     While NSAIDs will probably always be the first line of pain management in horses, it is important to understand the associated risks and always follow your veterinarian’s instructions when using these potent medications.


   As the name non-steroidal anti-inflammatory would imply, another class of anti-inflammatories is steroids, which is short for corticosteroids. The steroids most commonly used in equine medicine are Dexamethasone, Prednisolone, and Depo-Medrol.
    Steroids are the most potent anti-inflammatory medication that exists, but they have effects on just about every organ system in the body. Steroids are actually produced endogenously (that’s a fancy doctor word that means inside the body) all the time. They play a role in several normal day-to-day functions.
    Steroids are very cheap, and the docs prescribe them regularly for primary inflammatory conditions such as equine asthma and skin allergies. Steroids are also used in joint injections to decrease the inflammation caused by arthritis. However, steroids are not the greatest at analgesia (another fancy doctor word which means the reduction of pain).
    Likely the biggest reason vets are hesitant to reach for steroids as a way to control pain is because of their #1 scariest side effect in horses: laminitis, or founder. For many equine practitioners, the risk of laminitis outweighs any potential benefit of reducing pain that steroids may provide.

The Others

   So you know you can’t use Bute or Banamine  for too long, or you risk blowing out your horse’s gut. You know you don’t want to use steroids because your horse could founder. Your horse is on a full dose of Equioxx at $2/day, but he’s still in pain. What else can you use?
    This is the point where vets start thinking outside the box, and using what’s called multi-modal therapy to manage pain in horses. While NSAIDs target inflammatory pathways, there are other pain pathways, such as nerve pathways, that can be targeted as well.
     Gabapentin is a neuro-modulating drug used as an anti-seizure medication in humans. It can be added to a vet’s pain control protocol to target the deep nerve pain associated with certain excruciating conditions in horses. Gabapentin is starting to get into big bucks, however, and it doesn’t seem to work well in some horses. Also, because horses have such a fast metabolism, it needs to be given every 8 hours to stay at therapeutic levels in the body.
     Another option for pain control often used (and abused) in the human world is opioids. Tramadol, an opioid that has been studied and used in horses, has been criticized in the veterinary world as not working well to actually control pain, but primarily causing sedation. It seems that while Tramadol is a miracle drug for some horses with chronic pain conditions, it doesn’t make much of a difference for others. In addition to the obvious drawback that it is a controlled and closely regulated drug in the United States, another disadvantage to Tramadol is that it doesn’t last very long in horses. Studies have shown that the half-life of Tramadol is only about 3 hours, meaning that 3 hours after administration, half of the Tramadol has already been filtered out of the bloodstream, and by 6 hours it is nearly all gone. Who has time to medicate their horses every 6 hours? Not this cat!
   It may seem simple, but a medication that has recently started to be investigated in horses is Tylenol. Yep, the same Tylenol you can buy at your local pharmacy. Since it hasn’t been used much in horses, not much is known about Tylenol’s potential side effects, but early results suggest it is relatively safe. Now, you may think Tylenol is a cheap alternative, but consider that you will be going through about 1 giant bottle of extra-strength Tylenol every 3 days to treat an animal as big as a horse, so the cost does add up. Based on preliminary research, Tylenol doesn’t seem to be potent enough to control pain in horses when used by itself, but it is a promising drug that can be added to your horse’s pain management therapy.
   Well, there you have it: everything you ever wanted to know about pain control in horses.   But don’t take my word for it. If you have any questions about managing your horse’s pain, I can think of 3 excellent humans who also happen to be veterinarians that would be happy to answer them.
     Until next week,
P.S. So the humans did a podcast on this topic. If you want to hear it Straight from the Horse Doctor’s Mouth, she does a pretty good job of explaining things. Well, for a human, anyway. You can listen right here on my website, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Tuesdays with Tony is the official blog of Tony the Clinic Cat at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. If you liked this blog, please subscribe below, and share it with your friends on social media! For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at, or follow us on Facebook!

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Recognizing Pain in Horses

Recognizing Pain in Horses

Tuesdays with Tony

Recognizing Pain in Horses: The Telltale Signs

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: “Gee doc, your job must be so hard, because you can’t tell when your patient is hurting.” But the truth is, our docs use non-verbal signs to tell when a horse is in pain, and after years of practice they have become quite proficient at recognizing when something is wrong. So, how do horses “tell us” when they are in pain?


It may seem obvious, but limping is a sign of pain. The source of that pain can be anywhere from the tip of the toe to the shoulder/hip. The docs have a wide array of tools to determine where exactly the pain is coming from, but that’s a topic for another day.

Horses don’t “fake” lameness to get out of work. They are prey animals, so if anything, they will try to hide a limp when their adrenaline kicks in. Horses that are “sometimes a little off” or horses that “work out of it” are also in pain. I will add here that Bute is a powerful pain-killer. If your horse is “sound on Bute” but lame when off of Bute, he has an underlying source of pain somewhere.

Vets go through rigorous training during school in order to be able to see a subtle lameness. Both of my docs also happen to be experienced horsewomen, so they also understand what lameness feels like under saddle. However, during a lameness evaluation, they are looking for signs such as a head bob, hip hike, fetlock drop, or shortening of stride to tell them where a horse is hurting.

Heart Rate

One reliable indicator of pain that vets use on a daily basis is heart rate. In human medicine, a doctor may ask you to rate your pain on a scale of 1-10. Well, vets can’t do that in horses. But they can measure their heart rate and monitor whether it goes down with various treatments.

You can easily learn how to take your horse’s heart rate at home. Get yourself a stethoscope (it doesn’t have to be fancy). Locate the horse’s heartbeat just behind the left elbow. Look at your watch and count the number of beats in 15 seconds, then multiply by 4. This gives you the horse’s heart rate in beats per minute. The normal resting heart rate in a horse is about 30-40 beats per minute.

Some horses are very stoic. They may not show any overt signs of pain until they are near death. Certain breeds such as Walking horses, Draft breeds, Mules, Standardbreds, and some Quarter horses can be very stoic when it comes to pain. In these horses, it is very useful to get a quick heart rate measurement to assess their current comfort level.

Pain in horse expressionFacial Expression

Have you heard the phrase “I can see it in his eyes” when referring to a horse in pain? Well there is actually some truth to this theory, and it has even been empirically studied. Horses have a characteristic grimace that they often exhibit when they are in severe pain. You may have seen it if you have ever had a horse suffering from colic, laminitis, or a major injury.

When horses are in pain, their ears tilt back, their nostrils scrunch up at the corners, and they elevate their eyebrow muscles. There is a subtle distinction between a pain expression and an angry or worried expression. Our docs are all too familiar with the pain face, and can recognize it quickly, then get busy looking for the source of the pain.

If you think your horse looks like he is in pain, give him a good once-over. Is he “pointing” one forelimb in front of the other- a common sign of foot pain? Is he “flank-watching” or looking at his sides- a common sign of colic? Is he squinting one eye more than the other? If you’re not sure where the pain is coming from, give me a call at the clinic and I will get my experts involved!

The Silent Treatment

Animals certainly do feel pain. Just because they aren’t screaming and kicking like a human doesn’t mean they are not hurting. Even dogs and cats like me are rarely vocal when they are in pain. We use meows, hisses, barks, and growls to communicate other emotions, but not pain. I am more likely to slink off into a corner if I’m hurt than to come crying to a human.

Horses will almost always suffer in silence. For this reason, it is important to have a vet who can recognize and interpret their silent cries for help. It is also important to listen to your veterinarian’s recommendations regarding pain management. Sometimes the best option for easing your horse’s suffering may be humane euthanasia. But rest assured, our docs always have the best interests of your horse in mind.

Hopefully after writing this I’ll begin to hear a different comment from horse owners: “Gee doc, your job isn’t hard because you can’t tell when your patient is hurting. Your job is hard because you have to convince me that my horse is hurting.” Hey, a cat can hope, right?

Until next week,

~ Tony


Tuesdays with Tony is the official blog of Tony the Office Cat at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at, or follow us on Facebook!

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