Friday, 8 January 2016

All About ... Abscesses

Last week Chesney suddenly became much more lame than usual.  He has arthritis in his back legs and so is always a bit stiff but he began to hold his off hind in the air and away from his body.  So I called the vet - again - thinking that his arthritis was suddenly much worse.

However, the vet found a very tender sole on this foot and after a bit more investigation an abscess.  He had one last year in his other back foot :(

What is an abscess?

It is  a collection of pus which is enclosed in a capsule under the skin.  This is caused by a localised bacterial infection and the pus is the horse's response to the infection (see my immune system blog).  


Swelling under the skin can be felt or seen in the early stages of many abscesses.  The lump will initially be hot, painful and hard and over a larger area, later it will be soft and more localised.  The horse may be lethargic, off food and have a temperature. 

Foot abscesses usually result in sudden severe lameness and pain.  The horse will put little or no weight on the leg and may walk on the toe!  The limb or hoof may be hot with an increased digital pulse.  The leg might be swollen and the horse may have a low grade fever.  Sometimes the tendons in the affected leg can also be swollen and painful - this is because of the congestion of blood vessels.  Over time an abscess which began in the foot will often work its way up the hoof wall and pop out at the coronary band, or will move towards the bulbs of the heel, or drain out the sole.  However, during this time it will become more and more painful as the pus accumulates.

What causes it?

Often a foreign body has penetrated the skin eg: a splinter or a grass seed.  Internal abscesses are usually caused by an internal infection and foot abscesses by damage or an object penetrating the sole or wall.  A foot abscess can also be the result of a nail that is driven too close to the white line when the horse is shod

Diagnosis of a foot abscess.

This is done by examination of the foot, looking for evidence of heat and/ or pain and swelling in the pastern and fetlock area.  Once the hoof is clean the vet will use hoof testers to check the sensitivity of specific areas of the hoof to find the painful area.  The vet may be able to see a black line or a bruise on the sole too.  They will then pare a little sole away to  release the pressure and allow the pus to drain.  Sometimes this helps reduce the pain immediately but it can also 'sting'.  However, the abscess may be too deep in the hoof to do this.


An abscess may heal on its own in time but they are extremely painful and the healing process will be much longer.  In addition a foot abscess can develop into an infection in the pedal bone so this is NOT advisable.  Call the Vet.

The area must be kept clean.   Using an antiseptic scrub to clean the area to begin with may be advised by the vet.  Then applying a poultice daily to draw out the infection.  Antibiotics may be prescribed but are not always helpful. 

For a foot abscess the hoof and foot must then be kept clean and protected.  A poultice should be applied, if the abscess has been 'opened' then this will help draw out the infection.  Applying a pad of gamgee will then help protect and cushion the sole which should be bandaged and a boot put over the top to keep the foot dry.  You can create a 'boot' using heavy duty tape - have a look at my vlog from December 2014 when Chesney had a foot abscess before!  The poultice will then need changing every day until there is no pus.  The foot will continue to need to be kept clean and dry until the hole has then closed 

Obviously there will always be the unexpected but you can help to reduce the chances of your horse developing an abscess in the foot. 

Make sure the feet are trimmed regularly, if your horse is not shod try to keep him away from sharp stones.  If you suspect an abscess prompt treatment will reduce the pain for your horse.  

Poor Chesney just seems to find the stones in the field - but he should be feeling a lot better in a few days!

Have you seen this week's video 'Eating Treats and MUD' on my You Tube channel.   
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Until next time!

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