The Truth About Hoof Abscesses
Hoof Abscesses. If your horse has ever experienced one, then you probably know how awful they can be. One day your horse is fine, and the next, you’re freaking out, wondering what in the world could have happened. Often times, they will resolve fairly easily and you and your horse can continue on your merry way, but sometimes, they aren’t so simple. The abscess won’t drain and your horse continues to be painfully lame for weeks. Then there are some horses who seem to get them time and time again.
Abscesses are often misunderstood and treated in an over-aggressive manner, in my opinion. So, in hopes of helping owners better treat and even prevent abscesses, I’d like to shed a little more light on this all too common hoof issue.
Symptoms of a Hoof Abscess
For the experienced horse owner, abscesses are usually easy to spot, but sometimes, they can still catch you off guard. I remember finding one of my older horses (who was living at my parents’ house at the time) horribly lame in the pasture and thinking she’d broken her leg. That’s how bad abscesses can appear. (The abscess drained on its own a day or two later and she was fine, by the way).
But here are the usual symptoms of an acute (sudden onset) abscess:
- extreme lameness in one leg
- possible swelling in the leg
- strong digital pulse
- hoof may be warm
- reactive to hoof testers
Causes of Hoof Abscesses
First of all, it’s important to understand exactly what a hoof abscess is. Holistic veterinarian, Ralitsa Grancharova, DVM, MRCVS defines it as “the localized accumulation of liquid inflammation product (pus) between two podal layers (dermis and epidermis) or inwards from the hoof wall.” Grancharova also says, “a hoof abscess is usually the result of tissue damage localized in the hoof or elsewhere in the body.”
We can group causes of hoof abscesses into four categories really:
1.) Those caused by bacteria entering the hoof from the outside environment via cracks, nail holes, or white line separation;
2.) Those caused by factors within the body such as a disruption of hindgut bacteria (often from sudden dietary changes), ongoing laminitis, or even subclinical laminitis;
3.) Those caused by the toxic effect of certain medications, such as steroids, bute, NSAID’s, dewormers, or vaccines; and
4.) Those caused by direct trauma to the hoof. This could be stepping on a sharp stone or simply the presence of a horse shoe.
Treating Hoof Abscesses
First off, it should be noted that if a foreign object is the cause of the abscess, a trip to the vet is warranted since infection of the inner structures of the hoof or blood poisoning (sepsis) are a possibility.
But for treatment at home, there are several things you can do to help abscesses resolve more quickly. Taking the shoe(s) off is recommended since shoes prevent pressure on the sole which is actually needed for abscess expulsion and healing. You should also avoid cutting or drilling into the sole in most cases as this will only further weaken the hoof and potentially put your horse at risk for infection.
Sometimes, horse owners want to protect their horse when he has an abscess and stall him. Though this might be necessary in some instances (such as if another horse is going to cause problems for the injured horse), most of the time it’s actually counter-effective. Movement actually helps to expel abscesses more quickly and can also aid in the healing process. If possible, allow your horse access to a paddock with soft footing so he can move freely. If this isn’t an option, a homemade hoof wrap (made with foam padding and duct tape) or therapeutic boots such as the Easy Boot Clouds are great for making movement a little less painful.
Soaking is a popular treatment option and using a mixture of warm water with either epsom salt or apple cider vinegar is usually helpful for drawing an abscess out. You can either soak in a bucket or for an easier option, try soaking boots such as the Davis boots (I have these and really like them). It’s recommended not to soak once the abscess erupts since this will keep the hoof soft and may delay healing.
There are other options for treating abscesses, including homeopathy, essential oils, and laser therapy. This article discusses several of those.
For horses who tend to get abscesses frequently, there is a good possibility that laminitis is a factor–even if it’s subclinical laminitis (doesn’t show up on x-rays). In this case, dietary changes are needed. This would means cutting out high NSC feeds (10% or less is best), and even restricting pastures grazing in many instances. Some options for restricting grazing include the use of a grazing muzzle, keeping the horse off grass during the peak hours when sugars are at their highest (late morning to evening), utilizing a track system, or even dry lotting the horse and providing low-NSC hay instead. Mineral imbalance is also likely an issue in these cases and should be addressed.
Preventing Hoof Abscesses
Believe it or not, diet is actually one of the most important factors in preventing abscesses. Eliminating excess sugars, providing a diet as natural as possible, as well as ensuring both major and trace mineral needs are met are your best bet at preventing abscesses (aside from those caused by foreign bodies entering the hoof).
Though wet weather often gets blamed for abscesses, a healthy hoof (supported by good nutrition) is usually able to withstand soggy weather.
An example of a healthy, abscess-preventing diet might be the following:
- free-choice low NSC hay
- alfalfa or grass hay pellets/ cubes
- free choice trace mineral
- 1/2 cup ground flax or chia seeds
- limited grazing on fresh pasture (interestingly enough, pasture isn’t usually a problem for horses kept as a herd on a large pasture)
Please remember, this is only an example. There are other options!
Hoof care can also play a role in preventing abscesses. Of course, I’m going to recommend your horse not be shod, but if thin soles are an issue, then using hoof boots is a great option. Also, make sure your trimmer/ farrier isn’t cutting into live sole and further weakening the hoof. This is common practice in shoeing, and it definitely has no place in barefoot trimming (I don’t think it’s a good idea at any time, really). If your horse has white line separation, then this needs to be treated with dietary changes and possibly medicated soaking/ topicals as well.
Sources and Further Reading: