The bone disease treatment drugs that may be putting young horses at risk

POSTED ON  |  07-10-2017

Bisphosphonates are drugs used to treat degenerative bone diseases in humans. Think osteoporosis, or Paget’s disease. In horses, they’re used to treat a similar array of problems, like navicular syndrome, a painful disease whereby the navicular bone in the heel of the horse loses its bone density. Like all drugs, bisphosphonates are a proven fillip when administered to treat specific conditions in accordance with official guidelines. But like all drugs, bisphosphonates can be misused and abused.

And it’s the potential consequences from misuse in racehorses — especially in young racehorses — that’s causing mounting concern among a growing number of respected veterinarians and regulators in the industry. “There’s no checks and balances on this,” said Mary Scollay, equine medical director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, about a group of drugs that are currently unregulated. “If the risk is as real as we perceive it to be, we can be facing a real problem in terms of racing injuries and racing fractures if we don’t as a community come together to decide how to responsibly manage this,” she added.

Opposite effect

There’s still so much unknown about the way bisphosphonates affect the physiology of the racehorse, with the bulk of the drug research done on humans and on animals other than horses. But many experts point to studies suggesting that, if bisphosphonates are used to treat bone problems in young horses — those being prepared for the sales, for example — that, rather than strengthen the bone, bisphosphonates might actually have the opposite effect. What’s more, bisphosphonates can be challenging to detect and can remain in the bone for months, even years at a time, making the regulation of them an even greater obstacle.

“It’s a big concern industry wide,” said Jeff Blea, a Santa Anita-based veterinarian, one of a number of prominent veterinarians in recent years to have dug into the effects of bisphosphonates in racehorses. “I don’t think they belong on the racetrack,” he added. “The biggest reason why I take that position is that bisphosphonates potentially have potent pain-modifying abilities, and that bothers me.”

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