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Have you ever experienced – out of the blue – having your horse come into the barn “on three legs”? As comedian Tom Papa on “Live From Here” says, “I have.” You wonder what in the world could have happened to the horse that seemed just fine yesterday! Now the horse is so lame he/she can hardly put weight on the hoof and is walking on the toe. You begin to examine the hoof and leg and you find swelling and heat in the heel area. You look for wounds, foreign objects, or any other indication of injury, but find none. Could the problem be inside the leg with the suspensory ligament? The deep digital flexor tendon? So, you begin with the primary treatment of the ages: cold hosing and you call your veterinarian or farrier, or both. When the veterinarian examines the leg, it turns out the problem is a hoof abscess.
We consulted veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Dunlap to find out more about hoof abscesses.
By Jennifer Dunlap, DVM
1) Causes of hoof abscesses:
We see abscesses commonly in horses with laminitis and founder due to laminar stretching, which can cause the laminar tissue to be damaged, allowing dirt and bacteria to get into the white line. Also, laminar damage itself can cause bleeding, bruises and abscesses.
Abscesses are also common in horses worked on hard or bad ground. This can cause bruising, which can lead to abscesses.
Abscesses are common in horses that do not get good hoof care or do not get their feet picked out regularly
Abscesses can result from hoof punctures, which can be very serious depending on how deeply the hoof was penetrated – possibly involving the navicular bursa, the deep digital flexor tendon, or the coffin joint.
But sometimes no matter how good the care and the quality of the hoof, an abscess will just happen.
2) Symptoms and treatment of hoof abscesses:
Abscesses tend to present acutely with severe pain and lameness. A call to your veterinarian is warranted to help the abscess drain.
Drainage should always be established to decrease pain, lameness, overloading of the other limb, and to help the hoof heal. If it is popping out at the coronary band and is severe, cellulitis (bacterial skin infection) can result.
Once drainage is established, the area needs to be covered with a drawing salve, typically, and bandaged.
Abscesses due to deep puncture wounds generally require antibiotics, a hospital plate, and more intensive treatment – up to and sometimes including surgery.
3) Prevention of hoof abscesses:
Some abscesses are inevitable, especially in the wintertime mud. But ways to help prevent abscesses include:
Good, dry footing. Even if your horse is turned out in mud, it can help to come into a clean dry stall for part of the day
Good farrier care
Treat and address any underlying issues, such as Cushing’s disease and insulin resistance, which can also cause hoof issues with laminitis/founder.
Inspect your horses’ feet at least a few times a week to check for thrush, bruising, and any other issues.
Role of the Farrier
Your farrier is also a valuable resource in dealing with hoof abscesses, or other hoof problems. Here is information on hoof abscesses from farrier Daniel Bishop:
Most of the abscesses he sees our brought on by environmental factors, such as mud and other environmental conditions. He likes to keep abscesses bandaged for two weeks: the first week in a wet bandage with some sort of a drawing salve and the second week in a dry bandage to keep it protected. It’s important that an owner not attempt to dig out an abscess on their own because this could damage the foot or its sensitive structures and cause thinning of the sole and bruising. Rather, they should call their farrier or veterinarian.
Editor’s Notes: The American Farriers Journal has informative articles by Stephen O’Grady on “Managing Hoof Abscesses” at: https://www.americanfarriers.com/articles/1978-managing-hoof-abscesses and “How to Treat Hoof Abscesses” at: https://www.americanfarriers.com/articles/10459-how-to-treat-hoof-abscesses.
O’Grady writes: “Hoof abscesses are probably the most common cause of acute severe lameness in horses encountered by veterinarians and farriers. A hoof abscess can be defined as a localized accumulation of purulent exudate located between the germinal and keratinized layers of the epithelium, most commonly subsolar (beneath the sole) or submural (beneath the hoof wall).
“Organisms that are responsible for a hoof abscess gain entry through the hoof capsule (epidermis) into the inner subsolar/submural tissue (dermis) where the organisms propagate and initiate the formation of an abscess. Foreign matter (such as gravel, dirt, sand and manure coupled with infectious agents such as bacteria or fungal elements) generally gain entry into the hoof capsule through a break or fissure in the sole-wall junction somewhere on the solar surface of the foot.”
“A Horse Owners’ Abscess Primer” by Kim Hillegas, also in American Farriers Journal, presents the information in layman’s terms. https://www.americanfarriers.com/articles/6785-ahorse-owners-abscess-primer?v=preview
Hillegas writes: “Abscesses are internal infections of the foot, like a blood blister or a pimple. But because they are internal and there is no room for swelling within the foot, they are excruciatingly painful for the horse.
“Abscesses are caused by invasive or concussive trauma to the hoof. They are more common after extended periods of wet weather because horses’ feet are softest then, and because the protective sole has sloughed off.
“An abscess usually presents itself after a couple of days of subtle soreness. Suddenly, the horse goes three-legged lame and doesn’t want to put any weight on the affected limb. The foot may feel hot and have a strong, digital pulse. If you suspect an abscess, contact your farrier and veterinarian.”
Before they arrive, Hillegas recommends cleaning all debris off the hoof, then soak the foot in warm water with Epsom salts for at least 30 minutes.
“Remember, even though a horse may appear to be sound as soon as the abscess has drained, there is still an opening that will allow bacteria and fungi to get into the hoof. It’s critical to continue with daily soaks and clean, dry dressings. I have found that using clean, disposable baby diapers, with Vetwrap and duct tape is a great dressing,” Hillegas wrote.
Life Data Labs, makers of Farriers Formula, has an article on “The Relationship Between Hoof Quality and Recurring Hoof Abscesses” at: https://lifedatalabs.com/blog/2018/06/07/the-relationship-between-hoof-quality-and-recurring-hoof-abscesses/
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