Early diagnosis of cartilage disease at a time when changes are limited to depletion of extracellular matrix components represents an important diagnostic target to reduce patient morbidity. This report is to present proof of concept for nanoparticle dependent cartilage barrier imaging in a large animal model including the use of clinical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Conditioned (following matrix depletion) and unconditioned porcine metacarpophalangeal cartilage was evaluated on the basis of fluorophore conjugated 30 nm and 80 nm spherical gold nanoparticle permeation and multiphoton laser scanning and bright field microscopy after autometallographic particle enhancement. Consequently, conditioned and unconditioned joints underwent MRI pre- and post-injection with 12 nm superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles (SPIONs) to evaluate particle permeation in the context of matrix depletion and use of a clinical 1.5 Tesla MRI scanner. To gauge the potential pro-inflammatory effect of intra-articular nanoparticle delivery co-cultures of equine synovium and cartilage tissue were exposed to an escalating dose of SPIONs and IL-6, IL-10, IFN-γ and PGE2 were assessed in culture media. The chemotactic potential of growth media samples was subsequently assessed in transwell migration assays on isolated equine neutrophils. Results demonstrate an increase in MRI signal following conditioning of porcine joints which suggests that nanoparticle dependent compositional cartilage imaging is feasible. Tissue culture and neutrophil migration assays highlight a dose dependent inflammatory response following SPION exposure which at the imaging dose investigated was not different from controls. The preliminary safety and imaging data support the continued investigation of nanoparticle dependent compositional cartilage imaging. To our knowledge, this is the first report in using SPIONs as intra-articular MRI contrast agent for studying cartilage barrier function, which could potentially lead to a new diagnostic technique for early detection of cartilage disease.