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Hoof Abscesses in Horses

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There are many reasons why a horse could suddenly become lame without any obvious cause but an abscess is the most likely source of the problem. Horses with hoof abscesses will become increasingly lame until the issue is resolved either by the abscess breaking open on its own or when it is opened up by a vet or farrier.

It is easy to confuse an abscess with other types of injury as it could cause swelling in the lower limb. However, if a horse has an abscess, the affected hoof will often be warmer than the other hooves and the horse may develop a mild fever as its body responds to the infection.

Why do Abscesses Develop?

Abscesses are usually a consequence of some degree of separation in the sole of the foot that allows bacteria to colonize in the deeper tissues. Abscesses can develop as a result of any penetration of the sole by a foreign body, such as a nail. A sole bruise may turn into an abscess as the blood in bruises is prone to colonisation by bacteria.

How Puss Forms

An abscess is an accumulation of puss. When bacteria infiltrate the deeper tissues of the hoof they begin to multiply. White blood cells migrate to the area to fight the infection and then accumulate there. However, these cells deliver enzymes which further damage the tissues. The puss in an abscess is a soup of dead white blood cells, enzymes and dead bacteria. The puss increases to accumulate and places pressure on the structures of the foot. This irritates the tissues and nerve endings, hence the lameness. The horse can be in so much pain that they cannot even put their foot on the floor.

Treating an Abscess

A horse’s pain will rapidly decrease when the abscess is opened and the pus is drained away. But it could take days for the damaged tissues to heal and any lameness to completely disappear. In most cases, the hoof should be covered with a bandage or boot during the healing process to protect the defect and to prevent further infection.

It may not be possible to locate and drain an abscess when the vet first visits and examines the horse. The abscess could be difficult to reach and so may require several attempts to address the problem. But it is important to keep trying.

When a horse is lame due to an abscess for an extended period, other issues could develop such as support-limb laminitis. Bacterial infections may spread through the hoof causing permanent damage if an abscess isn’t treated in timely fashion.

Keep Abscesses in Mind

If your horse is suddenly very lame and you have no idea what might have happened, think abscess! An abscess is very treatable but it is important to seek veterinary attention as soon as possible. Once the vet has diagnosed an abscess as the likely cause of the lameness, they  can look for it, drain it and ease your horse’s pain.


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