What Is Hoof Abscess in Horses?
The hoof Is made up of a outer hoof wall (the part visible to the human eye) and the laminae (the tissue layer that connects the hoof wall to the coffin bone). A hoof abscess forms when bacteria become trapped inside the hoof. When an abscess forms, bacteria get trapped between the laminae and the hoof wall and form a pocket of exudate, or pus. This builds up pressure behind the hoof wall, or sole, that causes a lot of pain for a horse.
Hoof abscesses are one of the most common reasons for acute (sudden) lameness in horses. Horses can be completely normal in appearance and become unable to bear weight from an abscess within 24 hours.
Symptoms of Hoof Abscess in Horses
If a horse is experiencing a hoof abscess, they may exhibit one or more of the following signs:
Mild to severe lameness
Swelling of limb
Warmth to the touch of the hoof wall or limb
Distinct pulse felt near pastern
Discharge coming from hoof or near coronary band
Foul smell coming from hoof
Object punctured in hoof
If you see anything abnormal in the hoof, do not remove it. Call your primary veterinarian right away.
Causes of Hoof Abscess in Horses
Hoof abscesses can form for a variety of reasons but are most seen during the spring and fall seasons. The changes in weather from wet to dry, or dry to wet, may cause a horse’s hoof to become brittle and more prone to cracks and gaps, which allow bacteria to enter.
Poor hoof management and care leading to crushed heels or long flared toes can also increase risk of abscess formation. Trauma, such as a puncture wound from a nail or foreign object, can also lead to a hoof abscess or severe infection. If a foreign object is ever found in a horse's foot, do not remove the object. This is an emergency that needs to be radiographed and seen by a veterinarian immediately.
How Veterinarians Diagnose Hoof Abscess in Horses
In order to determine a diagnosis, your veterinarian will likely start by asking about the horse’s lifestyle history prior to the new lameness or visible symptoms.
A veterinarian will also want to determine the following:
Date of the horse’s last farrier appointment
Rough timeline of symptoms
Whether the horse is stalled or in a pasture
If the horse is ridden regularly
If there has been discharge, foul smells, or wounds around the hoof
Your vet will perform an exam, likely starting with touching the affected leg from shoulder to hoof looking for swelling, heat, pain, and wounds. Near the coronet band, the vet will likely feel for an increase in the digital pulse, which can be a sign of an issue in the foot. Additionally, they will clean the hoof out with a hoof pick and look for any abnormalities.
Hoof testers will be used around the hoof wall to investigate the source of the pain. During this test, the vet is looking for a pain reaction from your horse. If they can find an area that seems to get a reaction, the vet will use a hoof knife to explore the area.
If the abscess is near the surface of the bottom of the hoof, the vet may be able to open it up and allow the abscess to drain, which generally gives the horse immediate pain relief. In some instances, the abscess may open on its own at the coronet band instead of the bottom of the foot. These abscesses tend to be more painful for the horse and may take longer to heal.
Treatment of Hoof Abscess in Horses
Hoof abscess treatment can be frustrating and take a long time depending on the location of the abscess and how cooperative your horse is willing to be. Once your vet finds the abscess in the foot and opens it to drain, it will be critical to continue to keep the hoof clean and continue draining until the infection has been cleared completely.
There are two ways to help the abscess to continue to drain:
Soak the hoof 1-2 times daily in warm water with Epsom salts. Your horse must stand in a bucket of warm Epsom salt water above his coronet band for 15-20 minutes at a time.
Use a poultice pad and wrap the foot. To use this pad, wet it completely and then put the non-plastic side against the hoof. Wrap the hoof so the poultice pad stays against the bottom of the hoof.
It is very important to make sure that the bandage is not too tight around the coronet band, which can cause blood circulation issues. You will need to change the bandage once a day to every other day depending on how well it stays on the horse.
Prescription Medications for Hoof Abscess
Your vet will also likely include a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory prescription medication such as Phenylbutazone (bute), flunixine meglumine (Banamine) or Equioxx to help with pain and inflammation. Besides providing relief from inflammation, these medications also reduce pain, so your horse can be comfortable enough to put weight on the affected hoof. Medications can also help to drain the abscess.
Recovery and Management of Hoof Abscess in Horses
Horses tend to recover from a hoof abscess, but it can take a varying amount of time depending on the severity and location of the abscess. A mild hoof abscess that is located and drained may heal in as little as a few days to a week. More severe abscesses can take weeks to even months to completely resolve. It is more common for a hoof abscess to form in a front hoof versus a back hoof. When they form in a back hoof, they tend to take longer to heal.
If left untreated, a hoof abscesses can lead to severe infections of the bone or even laminitis. These are emergencies that need to be radiographed (x-rayed).
If a horse frequently gets hoof abscesses, your primary vet may want to investigate an underlying cause. For example, Cushing’s disease can cause a horse to have a weaker immune system and be more vulnerable to infections.
Prevention of Hoof Abscess in Horses
There are ways to prevent your horse from developing a hoof abscess, including:
Ensure your horse’s environment is clean and dry by picking up manure and urine daily.
Keep your horse on a routine farrier schedule. Every hoof grows at a different rate, but generally every 4-6 weeks is a good timeline for a farrier visit.
Ask your farrier about your horse's hoof health and whether it is abnormally dry or needs any additional care.
Clean hooves out daily and check for any foreign objects. Always pick up any nails, metal, glass, or other sharp objects.
Hoof Abscess in Horses FAQs
How long does it take for a horse hoof abscess to burst?
The time it takes for an abscess to open and drain varies depending on the severity and location of the abscess inside the hoof. If you suspect your horse has a hoof abscess, call your veterinarian right away. The sooner the abscess is detected and drained, the sooner your horse will feel better and heal.
How long does it take for a horse to recover from a hoof abscess?
The time for recovery from a hoof abscess can vary depending on its severity and location, but fortunately most horses recover very well. Abscesses that are deeper in the hoof can take much longer to migrate to a hoof surface to drain. Your primary vet should be able to tell you what to watch for and how long to expect to see improvement.
How do you draw out a hoof abscess?
There are two methods to draw out a hoof abscess. You can use warm water and Epsom salts in a bucket and soak your horse's foot daily. You can also use a drawing salve or poultice pad wrap/bandage on the hoof. These pads need to be changed once a day or every other day, depending on how well the bandage stays on and the advice of your veterinarian.
How do I know if my horse has a hoof abscess?
If you begin to see signs of lameness, swelling, or heat in your horse's limb, you should reach out to your vet right away. Your veterinarian will be able to diagnose a hoof abscess with an exam.
Featured Images: iStock.com/Hoptocopter
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