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For the love of you pet: Learning to care for your horses the best way possible

By By Shana Bohac
Oct. 17, 2013 at 5:17 a.m.


What is a hoof abscess and what can I do to treat it?

A hoof abscess is a localized bacterial infection in the sensitive structures (lamina) of the foot. Pus is produced as a reaction by the horse's immune system to battle the ongoing infection. The pus accumulates in the layers of the hoof wall.

The purulent material cannot go anywhere, so it causes pressure within the hoof capsule. This is typically extremely painful. The pus will do one of two things: work its way along the hoof wall and bust out of the sole of the foot or bust out at the coronary band or the heel bulbs.

The typical presentation of a hoof abscess is acute, severe lameness in which the horse bears little to no weight on the affected leg. The foot will typically be warm to the touch and have increased digital pulses, which can be palpated on the outer bones of the fetlock. The affected leg may be swollen and your horse may get a low-grade fever.

There are many ways in which an abscess can form. In some instances, a sharp object may have penetrated the hoof sole. Bacterial migration in the sole defect or crack can occur and cause the abscess to form.

During routine farrier service, a nail can be driven a little too close to the white line, causing an abscess. Once the shoe is removed and the area cleaned, the location is typically found. In most cases, however, the cause of the abscess is unknown.

Hoof abscesses can be diagnosed by examining the hoof for heat and pain upon hoof testing. Pronounced digital artery pulses are almost always seen. The abscess is typically identified as a black or dark red area in the sole of the foot. Once the abscess is localized, it will be cleaned, and the sole of the hoof will be removed in that area to allow drainage and oxygen exposure.

Most of the bacteria trapped in the abscess are anaerobic, meaning they don't like oxygen. Allowing oxygen exposure will in itself help kill off some of the bacteria. In some cases, the abscess cannot be identified. Frequently in these cases, the abscess will progress and bust out at the coronary band or heel bulb.

Treatment is predominantly keeping the hoof very clean and protected from the environment. A poultice is typically used to help soften the foot and draw the pus out of the sole. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories may be needed to help reduce swelling, pain and inflammation. Most uncomplicated abscesses heal in two to four days.

To help reduce the chances of your horse getting an abscess, maintain a regular schedule with your farrier or trim your horse's feet on a regular schedule (preferably every four to six weeks). Hooves that have too much toe or excessive bars are more prone to hoof abscesses.

Make sure that your horse is housed with dry footing, as this can predispose them to hoof abscesses. Be prepared for treating a hoof abscess. Have all the necessary materials and poultice in your emergency kit. Hoof abscesses are not an emergency; however, you should act promptly with treatment of a hoof abscess to expedite the healing time.

Dr. Shana Bohac has a veterinary practice at Hill crest Animal Hospital in Victoria. She works on both small animals and equine patients. Submit questions to drshanabohac@hotmail.com.

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