In the grand scheme of equine healthcare, a hoof abscess is not the most dangerous affliction your four-legged partner can experience. These painful pockets of fluid aren’t generally considered life threatening, but they can bring a horse’s competitive career to a grinding—if temporary—halt.
Britt Conklin, DVM, of Reata Equine Hospital and Podiatry Center in Weatherford, Texas, has fought on the frontlines against many an abscess. He says the best abscess advice he can offer owners is to pay attention to your horse and your horse’s environment and to act quickly should a problem arise.
“An average hoof abscess requires timely attention and treatment,” Conklin said. “However, compared to other commonly diagnosed hoof/foot problems, they are not considered very serious. [Horses] typically respond well to treatment, and the horse can often return to its previous level of performance in a short amount of time.”
Although hoof abscesses are usually not a major medical setback, they sound horrible and can appear just as bad when a horse starts showing the clinical signs. That is why a little knowledge about abscesses can be an owner’s greatest ally in ensuring a horse’s speedy recovery.
What are Abscesses Exactly?
A hoof abscess is a pocket of blood or pus or serum that is pressurized and causes pain. There are two different kinds of abscesses— those that originate externally, which are referred to as septic, and those that originate internally, which are called non-septic.
“The most common form is septic,” Conklin said. “Ones that form due to dirt or debris working its way up in the foot, getting trapped and forming a pressurized pocket.”
Dirt and debris generally find their way into a foot by way of a puncture wound, a crack in the hoof or through a seedy toe. Puncture wounds can be the result of an injury or, in some cases, can be caused by a badly placed horseshoe nail. Cracks also may be prompted by misguided management practices and hoof care, as they normally occur when a hoof becomes dry and brittle or when a horse’s “toes” grow too long as a result of infrequent trimming.
Seedy toes or separations at the white line can provide holes or avenues for bacteria to grow. These holes leave the inside of the hoof open to housing the foreign debris that can eventually turn into an abscess.
Conklin stresses that a horse’s environment is a huge factor in the formation of septic hoof abscesses. In fact, he says horses are especially vulnerable to these abscesses during wetter times of year.
“Take, for example, the horse that is kept in a dirt trap,” Conklin said. “When it rains or gets wet, the foot expands and gets very absorbent, like a sponge. This allows mud or dirt to work its way up into any small crack or open juncture of the white line. When it gets dry again, the foot contracts, trapping the dirt inside the foot and, over time, forms an abscess.”
While management practices can help minimize the potential for septic abscesses, non-septic abscesses are difficult to avoid for a horse that is already suffering from a hoof or leg problem. This is due to the fact that non-septic abscesses form when a horse’s body attempts to rid itself of diseased bone or tissue.
“Non-septic abscesses can be found in horses with very thin soles that [experience] a significant amount of chronic sole bruising or trauma, but are most commonly seen in horses with laminitis or founder,” Conklin said.
In diseases such as laminitis and founder, the abnormal movement of the coffin bone shears and crushes sensitive tissues causing them to die.
“Consequently, the body will seal off these areas and try to rid itself of the damaged tissue,” Conklin said.
These sealed-off pockets can become non-septic abscesses.
By themselves, non-septic abscesses are not necessarily more serious than septic abscesses. But when trying to treat the health problems with which they often coincide, they can be an unneeded complication to an already frustrating situation.