Tuesdays with Tony
If you have horses, chances are you will deal with a hoof abscess at some point. Have you noticed that horses can be pretty dramatic creatures, and don’t often keep their feelings to themselves? Horses generally have the opposite of a poker face, unlike cats. If that little pocket of infection is causing pressure in his hoof, he will definitely let you know about it! A horse with a hoof abscess can look almost as lame as if he had broken a leg.
It’s usually pretty good news if my doc comes out to see your 3-legged lame horse and tells you she found a sub-solar abscess. Of course you don’t actually want your horse to have an abscess, but compared to some of the alternatives, it’s generally a pretty easy thing for my docs to take care of. They would much rather be able to tell you it’s just a hoof abscess rather than an injured tendon or even a fracture. My doc will try to locate the abscess and open it up to drain it and relieve the pressure. Occasionally, she’ll need to soak or poultice the hoof for a few days to draw the abscess out. Usually, as soon as the abscess is drained, your horse will start feeling better and will be on the road to recovery.
But what if it’s not so simple? Most hoof abscesses are infrequent, uncomplicated, and resolve quickly. But there are situations where abscesses don’t behave how you want them to (very cat-like behavior, I admit). Some abscesses linger and don’t heal, and some keep coming back. Some aren’t just a hoof abscess at all, but a much more serious problem. You’ll want to know when your horse needs more than just the basic treatment, so you can avoid a potentially life-threatening situation. Here’s what you need to keep in mind.
The Repeat Offender
Once drainage is established, a “normal” hoof abscess should begin to dry out and fill in with healthy tissue, and your horse’s lameness should resolve within a few days. Some horses seem prone to abscesses though – you finish treating one and a couple months later, he gets another. If your horse seems to have abscesses pop up frequently, in the same foot or in different feet, there is usually a reason. Here are a few common culprits.
The first thing to do if your horse seems prone to abscesses is to check the hygiene of his environment and the condition of his feet. It’s important to provide a clean environment for your horse. Standing in manure, urine, or mud will degrade hoof tissue, and allow bacteria to enter the hoof and form an abscess. Horses with feet that aren’t in good shape can develop hoof cracks or white line disease, both of which allow an entry point for infection. Regular trimming (every 4-6 weeks) will help to maintain a good barrier. Make sure your farrier has the hooves well balanced and the toes don’t get too long. Those are common problems my docs see in horses with repeat abscesses.
Horses with chronic laminitis often have compromised blood flow to the feet, which makes it harder for them to fight off infections. Their white line is often abnormally stretched out, making it easier for bacteria to enter the foot. A horse with untreated Cushing’s disease may have a reduced immune system, making him susceptible to infections. He’s also prone to laminitis, making it a double whammy. My docs can check your horse out for laminitis or Cushing’s and recommend a treatment plan.
Another possible cause of recurrent abscesses in the same foot is a keratoma. A keratomas is a slow-growing benign tumor inside the hoof wall that can cause pressure necrosis of the bone, leading to chronic abscesses. You won’t see much from the outside, so my docs will recommend x-rays if they want to check for one. A keratoma can be removed surgically, and the hoof wall will grow back normally over time.
The Abscess That Won’t Resolve
This is a different situation from the repeat offender, and potentially a dangerous one. You think you find and drain the abscess, and your horse should be feeling better, but a couple days go by and he’s still quite lame. You may still see swelling and drainage as well. This abscess just won’t quit! You’ll want to take this situation seriously.
A ”normal” abscess is when the pocket of infection occurs in the area underneath the sole. Drain it through the bottom of the hoof, and it usually resolves without needing antibiotics. That’s how we want it to go. A deep abscess can travel up and burst out of the coronary band instead of through the bottom of the foot, which can take longer to resolve, and may recur if it doesn’t fully drain. Even an abscess that drained through the sole may recur if the hole seals over too soon or gets plugged up with dirt. The least severe possibility is that the abscess needs to be opened again.
Much more worrisome is an infection that has involved one of the important structures of the hoof, like the coffin bone, or a joint or tendon sheath. This can look like a regular hoof abscess in the beginning, but it doesn’t resolve when it’s drained. An infection of these structures is life-threatening, so you’ll want to have my docs out promptly if signs linger. A regular hoof abscess can develop into an infection of the coffin bone, called septic pedal osteitis, if it’s deep in the foot and isn’t able to find a way out. Septic pedal osteitis can also occur due to a puncture wound, for example if your horse steps on a nail. Don’t discount this possibility if you don’t see an obvious nail hole – they’re often very small and hard to find.
Another source of infection may be a coffin bone sequestrum, which occurs when a small piece of the bone dies and festers until it is removed. It’s also possible to have a foreign body like a small piece of wood or metal stuck in the foot. None of these scenarios will heal until the infected material is located and removed.
Anytime you suspect your horse has a hoof abscess, it’s best to call my doc out. Hopefully it’s just a simple treatment, but like with most horse problems, prevention and early intervention can help to keep things from getting worse and usually ends up less expensive than waiting to fix big problems.
Until next week,
P.S. If you want to learn more about your horse’s feet, check out some of the videos over on my YouTube Channel. My docs have a whole library for you over there. Don’t forget to Like and Subscribe, and tell them Tony sent you!
Tuesdays with Tony is the official blog of Tony the Clinic Cat at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. If you liked this blog, please subscribe below, and share it with your friends on social media! For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at SpringhillEquine.com, or follow us on Facebook!