What is DSLD in Horses?

Last Updated on December 7, 2021 by Urska

Some equine diseases can be cured and some cannot. Unfortunately, DSLD in horses is one that cannot. DSLD, or degenerative suspensory ligament desmitis, is a relatively newly discovered equine disease that causes lameness in horses.

In this article, I’ll be discussing DSLD, what it is, what causes it, possible treatments, and how to handle a DSLD diagnosis in your horse.  As horse owners, the best thing we can do for our equine friends is to be informed of all possibilities when it comes to their health, both good and bad.

DSLD in Horses: What is DSLD?

Degenerative suspensory ligament desmitis, or DSLD, is a genetic degenerative condition that causes the horse’s ligaments to permanently inflame and stretch out.  This condition occurs over the course of a horse’s life and cannot be reversed.

The Horse describes DSLD in the following words: 

“Degenerative suspensory ligament disease causes chronic suspensory ligament breakdown—this structure runs down the back of the cannon bone and attaches to the sesamoid bones. Without its support the fetlock joints (most commonly the rear) drop below their normal angle. Resulting ligament breakdown, flexor tendon injury, and osteoarthritis in the fetlock, hock, and stifle joints lead to debilitating lameness. The disease is manageable but not curable.”

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Horses with DSLD will typically come in and out of soundness during the onset of the disease, typically in the horse’s early adulthood. Many horses that have DSLD are labeled as having “soundness issues” by vets and trainers that have trouble diagnosing an exact problem.

Sometimes, DSLD horses will even be mistaken as having some kind of neurological condition.  All of this because DSLD is extremely hard to diagnose.  For a long time, the only way to know was to administer a post mortem biopsy.  Today, however, there are ligament biopsies that can be done in order to diagnose a horse.

DSLD will eventually lead to the horse’s limbs becoming misshapen;  sometimes a horse’s fetlocks drop, hind legs become like “post” legs, and so on.  The infected legs will eventually give out and become unable to support the horse’s weight.

Though this progression can happen over the entire span of a horse’s lifetime. The speed of progression and the time that a horse can live with DSLD comfortably is unique to each situation.

DSLD in Horses: What Causes DSLD?

DSLD is a hereditary disease.  So, horses develop DLSD due to genetics and breeding. There’s nothing a horse can do to either develop or not develop DLSD;  they simply get it because it was in the genes of their sire or dam.

 DLSD was first discovered in the Peruvian Paso breed, and it continues to be found most frequently in Peruvian horses. While this is the case, nearly any horse breed can develop DSLD.  Today, DLSD has been seen in Saddlebreds, Quarter Horses, warmbloods, Thoroughbreds, Arabians, and others.

DSLD in Horses: Can DSLD Be Treated?

As I’ve stated above, DLSD cannot be cured.  There is no way to reverse the damage that has already happened in a horse’s ligaments.  There are, however, ways to treat horses with DSLD, in order to alleviate their pain and slow down the progression of the disease.

One way to help treat a horse with DSLD is to keep him moving.  It has been proven that activity can help relieve the pain of DSLD horses.  Different horses will be able to do different quantities of work, but movement, in general, is important to keep these horses healthy.

There are also varied methods of farrier work that can help relieve pain for horses with DSLD.  Relieving pressure on certain parts of a horse’s hoof, or providing extra cushioning, etc. depending on the horse, can make DSLD horses more comfortable.

Some horse owners believe that the use of wraps or certain sport/splint boots can help relieve their horse’s pain as well. Exact treatment should be discussed with your vet and may end up being the result of trial and error.

Every horse is different, so every horse’s treatment plan will be different. Sometimes, a treatment will seem to work for a while and then will need to be changed later on throughout a horse’s life.  Every horse is unique and every case of DSLD is unique.

How to Handle a Horse with DSLD

With no cure, how is it best to handle a horse with DSLD?  The simplest answer is to listen to your horse. Pain and lameness from DSLD can flare up and fade away over periods of time in a horse’s life.

If your horse seems to be experiencing pain from DSLD, try some form of treatment to try to help.  If your horse seems relatively pain-free, keep up whatever treatments you are currently doing.

How to Handle a Horse with DSLD

If you pay attention to your horse and know their typical behavior patterns and mannerisms you will be able to tell when something is off.  Paying attention to subtle behavioral cues like this can help you understand when your horse is experiencing more pain than normal.

The best way to handle a horse with DSLD is to try to keep him comfortable.  Simply put, DSLD horses will never be entirely comfortable like a completely sound, healthy horse.  But, they can be kept comfortable enough to be pasture pets and companions.  

So, the best way to deal with a DSLD horse is to simply keep them as comfortable as possible.  Try different kinds of treatments, pay attention to what helps and what doesn’t help, make sure they have space in which to decide how much or if they want to move, and so on.

Conclusion

Research continues to be done on DSLD to this day.  Maybe someday there will be a cure, but for now, the best we can do is to try to keep horses with DSLD comfortable and happy! And, there are many kinds of treatments that can help with this.

I hope this article helped you understand what DSLD is, and how we can best help horses that have DSLD.  If so, please share this article, and share with us your experiences dealing with DSLD!

FAQs

Can you ride a horse with DSLD?

Riding a horse with a diagnosis of DSLD is not recommended. The risk of lameness, instability and suspensory breakdown is significantly higher in a horse with DSLD.
The risk of suspensory breakdown is higher in horses that are ridden with the disease. The animal can become lame and unstable and eventually develop a rupture within the suspensory apparatus. This will prevent the horse from walking and may lead to death due to starvation or loss of circulation.

How is DSLD diagnosed?

Horse owners normally first start noticing that the horse is not the same as it was before. The horse may have a problem with their balance and they may be more likely to trip over and fall down. If you see these signs, it might be time to take your horse to a veterinarian.
There are three ways for a veterinarian to diagnose DSLD: observation, lameness evaluation, and radiology.
Observation: A veterinarian will take a look at the horse's gait and posture as well as their balance when standing still or walking around.
Radiology: Routine X-rays of the joints can reveal something that is not visible from observation alone.
Lameness Evaluation: This typically involves having someone ride or walk on the animal's back while manipulating its limbs.
The clinical signs of DSLD are varied and depend on which muscles are affected. The most common signs are:
- Lameness in one of the limbs
- Weight shifting to one limb
- Muscle atrophy, muscle fasciculation, muscle cramps
- Reduced or absent reflexes
- Muscle stiffness, muscle tremors.
A DSLD diagnosis can be confirmed through a study of the hocks, which is called an MRI or magnetic resonance imaging test. The MRI will show whether there are any abnormalities of the cartilage or ligaments.

Is DSLD painful for horses?

DSLD stands for Degenerative Suspensory Ligament Disease. This condition is painful for horses, and the pain can be so intense that it prevents them from walking. The condition can also lead to lameness and long-term disability.
The disease can be found in horses of any age, breed, or gender.
The symptoms of DSLD are very similar to those of arthritis in people. Painful swollen joints and stiffness are common symptoms that horses might experience with this illness. Horses with DSLD often have difficulty getting up after resting, they may experience prolonged periods of lameness after exercise, and they may develop tendonitis between the hock and stifle joints.

Can DSLD in horses be cured?

We can cure DSLD in horses if we treat it early enough with proper medication and care.
There are multiple ways for this disease to be treated and most of them are proven to be effective. These treatments include:
Diet: Raising the caloric intake and also adding some high-energy supplements such as corn syrup, molasses, and honey.
Exercise: Exercise has been found to help with muscle atrophy and joint stiffness which can help with recovery from DSLD in horses.
Surgery: Sometimes surgery needs to take place such as debridement (removing of dead tissue) of the hoof wall or severing of tendons.
Surgery is always a last resort when dealing with hoof problems. However, sometimes surgery needs to take place in order to save the animal's life.

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