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Equine Foot Abcesses

Doctor Examines Horse Foot/Leg

What a pain!

By Dr. Garrett Metcalf, DVM

A foot abscess is a common occurrence in horses throughout the year. Often wet weather can play a factor in the increase number of foot abscesses that horses will experience. A foot abscess can cause a great deal of pain, lameness, swelling and misery to the horse that often needs to be addressed quickly and provide pain management to keep them comfortable. There are many methods of addressing a foot abscess that people use. This article will discuss techniques to evaluate and treat the abscess as quickly as possible.

Foot abscess is a focal or sometimes diffuse infection that is trapped between the sensitive and non-sensitive lamina of the foot capsule. A foot abscess can form randomly from the normal stresses and environmental changes that cause the foot to allow bacteria to enter down to the sensitive tissues. Other causes are penetrating injuries to the bottom of the foot that allows bacteria to enter the through the outer lamina, such as nails, sharp rocks or even thorns. Poor foot care and misplaced shoeing nails can also lead to foot abscesses. A common area for abscesses to form is at the white line (area where the sole and hoof wall meet) and at the bars of the heels.

Foot abscess can cause a horse to have variable amounts of lameness, but generally they will be lame at a walk or even be non-weight bearing from the severity of the pain. Swelling starting at the foot and working its way up the limb can be noted when the abscess is trying to migrate out at the coronary band. These types of abscess are often referred to as “gravel” abscesses. “Gravel” is no more than just a regular foot abscess that has found the path of least resistance to the coronary band, where it ruptures out and causes a draining tract. An abscess in the hind foot can make the horse move rather abnormal to the point that it makes owners and veterinaries perceive the horse as acting neurologic.

Examination of the horse for lameness is the first step in diagnosing a foot abscess. The horse will often be lame at walk but some need to be watched at a trot to determine the lame limb. Lameness localization with regional nerve blocks can help make sure the pain is coming from the foot and not other parts of the limb. The foot will often have an increase digital pulse with occasional notable heat in the foot. The pulse is from inflammation causing a bounding of the digital arteries most notably behind the ankle region. The foot examination often needs to be performed with the shoe removed from the foot if the horse is shod. Hoof testers help pinpoint the area of most concern on the foot and often horses will be rather painful in response to the pressure created by the hoof testers. Knifing the foot out to clean up and remove any old sole or frog material is imperative to be able to locate the abscess with as much accuracy as possible. Often there will be a defect in the hoof or a dark focal tract that will lead to the abscess.

Treatment of the foot abscess can be done multiple ways and many people have lots of opinions on this topic. My treatment of choice is to open that abscess as soon as possible to give the horse nearly immediate relief and to quickly resolve the abscess infection. There are many methods to doing this but a good sharp hoof knife or loop knife one of the easiest ways to get the abscess drainage through the bottom of the foot. Whenever drainage of the abscess is achieved at the bottom this can eliminate the formation of a “gravel” and keep it from migrating out at the coronary band. Also drainage at the bottom allows a more effective treatment of the abscess with topically applied poultice agents. After the abscess has been opened to drain, bandaging the foot with a poultice agent is effective at eliminate the abscess and preventing foreign material from packing to the abscess area.

A great method of bandaging the foot is with the use of a large baby diaper. The diaper is very absorbent and foots the foot rather well. The diaper can be covered with layers of Vetrap, Duck Tape and Elaskiton to keep it protected or the foot can be placed in a medicine boot to keep the diaper protected.

Poultice choices are rather personal experience or availability, but also depend on the nature of the abscess. Epsom salt based foot poultice agent called Magna Paste or similar products are rather good at drawing out the remaining part of the abscess once it is opened. A homemade poultice of sugar combined with Betadine solution can make a really good poultice. There are various other topical agents that can be used effectively. The main thing when choosing a topical product is to make sure it is safe and that it has some antimicrobial properties.

Some foot abscess cases can be difficult to pinpoint and to drain. In these situations often time, pain management and soaking of the foot in Epsom salt water baths can help to allow the abscess rupture or make it easier to identify. In rather difficult abscess or when abscesses keep reoccurring in the same location, X-ray imaging of the foot is helpful to examine the structures of the foot. The abscess itself cannot be seen often with X-ray because the abscess fluid is the same density as the hoof wall. The only way to identify an abscess on X-ray is if there is gas present in the abscess making it visible on the film. Whenever there is a penetrating injury to the foot, X-ray is a must to make sure that the injury is not going into the deeper structures of the foot like the coffin joint or navicular bursa. These injuries are much more serious and need to be examined as quickly as possible. It is also recommended whenever possible to leave the penetrating object in the foot until the X-ray is taken. This will help the veterinarian understand what structures may have been injured.

Prevention of foot abscess is not always possible but a great start to this is really good hoof care. Routine trimming on a timely schedule is key part of good hoof care. The longer the feet go without a trim can affect the lamina and cause stretching of the white line, opening it up to allow bacteria to enter the foot. The use of special shoeing nails and other methods of good shoeing practices also limit the risk of abscessation.

Read more in the June issue of Oklahoma Farm & Ranch.