For horses, an abscess is a buildup of puss usually occurring under the surface, much like a boil. Most commonly found in horses’ feet, an abscess is a sore spot that causes discomfort, often resulting in sudden lameness. While pain levels and frequency vary from horse to horse, abscesses are commonly found in three places in the hoof: the frog, heel or toe. Since this is common among most horses, we are going to take look at how to diagnose, treat and prevent abscesses.
The buildup of puss is most commonly caused by wet or damp conditions that soften the surface of the hoof, making it more susceptible to bacteria. In wet conditions, the following are major risks for infection.
Wounds: A puncture or surface wound without proper treatment may become infected, leading to an abscess.
Horse shoe nails: Bacteria on horseshoe nails can cause an abscess.
Horseshoes: Once a horse’s shoes have been removed, their feet are temporarily more sensitive. Due to no longer having the additional support from their shoes, there is an increased chance of getting an abscess while the feet toughen up.
Footing: Both stall and paddock conditions can be causes for abscesses. If the ground is too wet, does not have enough bedding or has muddy terrain, horses’ feet can soften and sore. If there are any rocks or tough stones hidden in the footing, these can cause bruises that can then develop into abscesses.
Poor posture: If a horse puts more weight on one foot than the other for an extended period of time, due to a lame right front hoof for example, the additional stress on the front left hoof may cause the horse to develop an abscess there.
Lameness: The most common symptom is sudden lameness on the infected hoof. The horse may also walk on the toe of the hoof only, usually a sign that the abscess is in the frog or the heel.
Physical Evidence: If the abscess is due to a wound or bruising, there will be physical evidence. Depending on the stage there may be signs of heat and swelling.
Tender Points: By pushing gently over all parts of the hoof, you may discover the horse is tender in a specific spot; this will be where the abscess is.
Diagnosis: Once the diagnosis is suspected, it never hurts to consult with a farrier. If the abscess has surfaced enough, the farrier may be able to puncture it and speed up the healing process.
Stall Rest: When the abscess is discovered, put the horse on stall rest to prevent further injury.
Medicine: Giving the horse an anti inflammatory, such as phenylbutazone (bute), can relieve some of the swelling and pain due to the infection. Antibiotics may also help clear the infection if needed.
Hoof soak: Soaking the hoof in hot water and Epsom salt can help speed the surfacing process and clean the wound. However, soaking for too long can soften the hoof and make the problem worse, so use this treatment with caution.
Cleaning: Be sure to clean the infected area with a needleless syringe filled with peroxide and or iodine.
Sterilize: To keep the hoof sterile after soaking and cleaning, wrap it in either gauze pads, vet rap or a diaper secured with duck tape.
Support: Proper bedding is not only important as an absorbing agent, but when a horse has an abscess, it is good to also be sure there is enough comfort and support under their hooves. Giving a horse extra bedding when they have an abscess is recommended.
Some horses can get abscesses more often than others; however there are still preventive measures that can be taken.
Foot care: Be sure to clean your horse’s feet regularly, removing not only rocks, but mud and dirt as well.
Paddock care: Check paddocks regularly for rocks and remove them. Keeping the paddocks clean of general debris and manure is also recommended. If a horse is likely to get abscesses, limit their time in muddy paddocks.
Stall care: Clean the stalls well and be sure there is enough bedding.
Farrier: Be sure to have a farrier trim/ change shoes regularly.
Vigilance: Watch out for lame horses, catching an abscess early may save an extra trip from the farrier and can prevent additional discomfort for the horse.
Abscesses can cause an initial scare as a suddenly lame horse is always worrisome. However by using some of these techniques, you can prepare and act quickly if need be to get your horse back in the ring. If there is a technique you have found useful for treating, detecting or preventing abscesses, please let us know in the comments below!