This is a common line when clients ring up for an emergency consult.
You have come out to find your best mate, one foot in the air, hopping to you for help on three legs.
Often you first thought is the worst – but more often than not a foot abscess is the culprit!
If your horse has never had a foot abscess the sight can be quite scary, but the good news is that foot abscess’ are quite common, straight forward to treat and often resolve very nicely.
What is a foot abscess?
A foot abscess is an infection within the sensitive structures of the horses hoof. This is often secondary to bacteria getting into the foot. This often happens from cracks or penetrating injuries, but it can also be from soft feet (especially if horses are left in wet muddy conditions) or even from laminitis.
Whatever the reason, bacteria enter the foot and the body sends white blood cells to try and alleviate the infection – the end result of this is an abscess.
Unlike other areas of the body where abscess’ can form (such as skin, lymph nodes, etc) the hoof capsule cannot stretch to accommodate the increasing amount of fluid from an abscess. So the end result is a lot of pain and often swelling up the affected limb. So you’ll often come out to find your horse on three legs, and the sore leg can be swollen right up over his cannon bone.
How do you treat them?
The main aim of treatment of a foot abscess is to get it draining – this is often done by exploring the foot with hoof testers and a hoof knife, trying to find a weakness in the sole or wall that would have allowed the infection in, or will allow the infection out. More often than not this area of weakness is associated with the white line or with cracks in the hoof – so that’s where either your vet or farrier will start.
Sometimes we are lucky and can get the abscess draining straight away – and your horse will be on the road to recovery.
Sometimes we aren’t so lucky, and the abscess is either too deep or too small to drain effectively. In these cases a poultice is applied for a certain period of time which helps to draw out the abscess from the foot.
Poultices are often kept on for a few days even once the abscess is open to help promote drainage.
In addition to poulticing your horse will often receive pain relief to help control the pain and swelling from the abscess. In most cases horses do not require antibiotics, but a consult with your vet is always a smart idea, as sometimes the abscess’ can spread to joints and bones.
You will often find your horse will be significantly better hours after the abscess is draining.
A clean, dry area is the best place for your horse to recover from an abscess.
When is an abscess not just an abscess?
Often times abscess’ can be directly related to laminitis. Laminitis can cause weakness’ in the sole and hoof wall that allow bacteria in. Sometimes very bad cases of laminitis can form abscess’ that are not directly related to an infection from bacteria – when horses are severely affected by laminitis, the resulting fluid and debride from the inflammation within the laminae can build up and form an abscess. These can either be drained through the sole of the horse, or commonly end up erupting at the coronary band.
Sometimes, we as vets see horses that are “prone” to abscess’ and the individual horse may have multiple abscess’ throughout the year, which is very stressful for all involved. If this is the case your veterinarian will often recommend further investigation to take place as sometimes we find that the abscess’ are actually secondary to another problem. In these cases veterinarians will often recommend either blood tests for PPID (Equine Cushings), Equine Metabolic Syndrome and/or x-rays of your horses feet.