Health & Wellness

Dealing With Hoof Abscess

by Dr. Bob Peters, DVM
McKinlay & Peters Equine Hospital – Spokane, Washington
“I need a veterinarian out here ASAP! I think my horse broke its leg. Yesterday he was fine but this morning his leg is swollen and he will barely touch his toe on the ground.” You would be amazed at how often this time of year we get a phone call that sounds something similar to this. It happens so often in fact that the office staff often refers to them as “another hoof abscess call” when they tell one of the doctors to call the client back. It is not uncommon for us to look at a hoof abscess daily during this time of the year. In fact, I dealt with two just today.

What Causes Hoof Abscesses?
The wet, muddy environment of the Northwest is the number one culprit. It softens the hoof capsule making it much easier for bacteria to penetrate to the sensitive structures. Soil, in general, carries a very high bacterial load. The addition of fecal material in the horse paddock exponentially increases the bacteria level. As the ground becomes soft and muddy your horse is standing in a bacterial stew. Any penetration of the outer structures of the hoof allow a path for bacteria to gain access to the sensitive lamina. There are many ways to cause a break in the outer protective layer of the hoof. It could be poor conformation, a broken hoof wall, white line disease, a past laminitic incident, a small stone, a horse shoe nail, pawing at the fence, bad luck or any other number of things.

How Do We Prevent a Hoof Abscess?
Head for Arizona for the winter… don’t we all wish! It is easier said than done, but, minimizing as much as possible, the amount of exposure the hoof capsule gets to muck and mud will help. Obviously we can’t stop the rain and snow; however, there are several things you can do to help. First, turnout on ground that is slightly sloped to allow for water to run off is better than flat ground. If that is not an option, providing a dry area is critical. Shavings suck an amazing amount of moisture out of the hoof. Stalling at night or at least providing a 3 sided run in shed with dry shavings will make a profound difference. If none of those suggestions are possible haul in a truck load or two of dirt to create a raised area that will stay drier than the rest of your “pond.”

In my opinion, it is even more critical to keep your farrier coming all winter. Overgrown feet hold an amazing amount of mud and fecal matter. They also are at much higher risk of cracks or breaks developing in the wall. Obviously an overgrown foot is also an out of balance foot. An out of balance foot creates stresses in the white line and or bruises that are gateways for bacteria to enter.

horse hoof abscess
Dr. Peters’ two year old colt trying to keep his feet dry

My Horse Has an Abscess Anyway, How do I treat it?
If you are one of the unlucky ones who goes out to find your buddy with an abscess, the best thing to do is call your veterinarian; they will accurately diagnose the problem. Not all abscesses are equal—Some are much more serious than others. The most effective treatment is to open a tract to allow for drainage. This has a twofold effect. First of all, it relieves pressure inside the hoof capsule which provides pain relief. Second, it allows an escape route for the infection. Obviously, the horse needs to be current on tetanus shots. Bandaging and poulticing are done in most cases. Left untreated the infection could work its way to areas of the foot where it can be a much more serious problem. Many rupture out of the coronet. If this happens, the healing time is longer and there is a potential for a long term hoof wall defect. If it works its way into the coffin bone, coffin joint or tendons the effect could be catastrophic. It is true that treated correctly, most hoof abscesses heal pretty quickly with no adverse long term effects. There are a few that are not that lucky— so don’t treat the hoof abscess lightly.

Pick the feet daily, give ‘em a place to dry out, keep your farrier in the loop. If things go south anyway give your vet a call. — Happy New Year, Dr Peters

Jed McKinlay, DVM
Bob Peters, DVM
Misty Rhett, DVM
509-238-4959 • 208-457-8813

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