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One day you are happily on a hack with your horse, not worrying about a thing in the world, and the next day it is suddenly standing in its stable on three legs. What happened? In most such cases, it is, fortunately, only a painful but largely harmless hoof abscess.

A hoof abscess, also known as a hoof ulcer, is a painful collection of pus inside the horn capsule of the horse’s hoof.

Because the pus within a hoof abscess is confined by the hard hoof horn, it cannot easily escape, leading to increased pressure on the sensitive corium. As a result, abscesses often result in a sudden and severe onset of lameness, which may persist until the affected limb is immobilized. Initially, horse owners may be deeply shocked and fear the worst when their horse presents with severe lameness due to a suspected hoof abscess.

But how can you even determine if your horse has an abscess?

Certainly, sudden severe lameness can be caused by various issues beyond an abscess, including tendon or ligament damage and fractures. However, when sudden lameness occurs without swelling or tenderness in other parts of the leg, a hoof abscess should be considered as a possible cause. Typical signs include:

  • Sudden, severe lameness, to the extent that the affected leg is completely unweighted,
  • The affected hoof is clearly warmer,
  • Often the leg is also swollen,
  • Sometimes pulsation can be felt.

These symptoms can also be related to conditions like laminitis, a nail prick, tendon or ligament damage, or a fracture. Therefore, even in cases where there’s a reasonable suspicion of a hoof abscess, it’s advisable to consult with a veterinarian and/or a hoof specialist to properly diagnose and treat the issue. These professionals can then conduct a more precise diagnosis by using hoof testers and, ideally, pinpoint the exact location of the abscess. If the horse exhibits a noticeable response when the hoof is pinched at a specific location, you’ve identified the source of the problem.

Caution: this pain response should be replicable and rechecked, as there may have been another reason for the horse’s behavior at that particular moment.

What to do in case of a hoof abscess?

Once other potential reasons for the lameness have been eliminated, and the exact location of the abscess has been pinpointed, the most appropriate course of action is to create an opening for it. This procedure should also be carried out by a qualified veterinarian or professional hoof trimmer. Additionally, this should only be performed if the diagnosis is certain, and the abscess has reached a sufficient level of maturity. Just as picking at an immature pimple on your face is ineffective. Opening the abscess prematurely can lead to complications, much like squeezing a pimple too soon can cause issues.

Treating the abscess prematurely may pose several issues. Firstly, the precise location of the affected area might not be identified accurately, leading to the removal of a substantial amount of horn when opening it. Consequently, the horse may have a significant hole in the sole, which elevates the risk of further infection and the development of a weak spot in the hoof horn. To prevent this, it is advisable to apply a moist hoof dressing to immature abscesses initially.

To expedite the maturation of hoof abscesses, consider substances like sauerkraut or warm mashed potatoes in the hoof dressing.

Hoof bandage and other remedies

Depending on your preference, you can utilize a baby diaper for the hoof dressing (adding extra liquid, as it will absorb a significant amount) or opt for a regular gauze cloth secured with tape. The diaper version is typically the simpler choice for those who may not be as proficient in creating hoof bandages. Sauerkraut or mashed potatoes expedite the maturation of the hoof abscess by creating a warm and humid environment, which softens the hoof horn, allowing for more precise opening at a later stage.

It’s best to avoid painkillers and cooling treatments for hoof abscesses since these can impede the natural inflammatory response. Cooling or using painkillers can hinder this process, as the inflammatory response is a crucial part of the body’s healing mechanism to remove the infection.

In addition to hoof dressing, homeopathic remedies can be administered to provide additional support. Hepar sulphuris, sulphur, and myristica have shown to be effective in these cases. These are the classical “abscess remedies” known in homeopathy. The choice of the remedy and its potency should be determined by a veterinary practitioner based on the specific case. It’s essential to adhere to the relevant drug regulations when using homeopathic remedies for horses.

Sometimes, an abscess may naturally find its way to the surface and open at the coronet band or the sole, where it can break through the softer skin and discharge. In some cases, this process occurs without the horse showing lameness symptoms beforehand, and it can go unnoticed by the owner. The abscess only becomes visible toward the end of this process as the affected area grows into a transverse fissure in the horn pointing downward.

Regrettably, this doesn’t always happen, so it’s advisable to have a professional assess whether the abscess is mature enough to be opened. Consequently, when the abscess is properly opened, this provides significant relief to the horse. Opening and draining the pus promptly alleviates the pressure pain.

The size and depth of the wound where the abscess was opened will determine the course of aftercare. First, the opening should be disinfected. When a significant portion of the sole has been removed, it is essential to apply a dry hoof dressing to shield the sensitive corium. In such cases, the cavity should be packed with a swab and then covered with a hoof bandage. A baby diaper can serve this purpose; it is secured to the hoof, providing stability with adhesive bandage and duct tape around the sole and hoof wall. This prevents the dressing from wearing out too quickly.

The dressing should be replaced regularly, and the wound must be disinfected and kept clean to prevent reinfection. With smaller abscess openings or as the abscess progresses, it may be sufficient to close the hole with a cotton swab and/or beeswax. While some may opt to use chewing gum to close the hole, it often does not provide a very secure seal.

But what are actually the causes for the development of an abscess?

From a classical perspective, it is assumed that an abscess is caused by the penetration of foreign bodies (such as stones, nails, or similar objects) into the hoof capsule. Bacteria can also enter through a coronary injury, potentially leading to the development of an abscess. In both cases, there is an infection originating from external sources. Nevertheless, this rarely seems to be the primary cause. Therefore, other factors should always be considered.

An abscess can also be caused, for example, by inadequate hoof care. If there are disproportions in the hoof that lead to tension and leverage, such as forced hooves or overly tight horseshoes, this can result in significant pressure on the corium and lead to inflammation, ultimately resulting in the development of an abscess. This phenomenon can also be observed in many horses during the transition from being shod to having bare hooves. In this case, the hoof needs time to adapt to the new situation, and the sole, which is often quite thin initially, doesn’t provide adequate protection. In such situations, it is essential to optimize hoof care and consider using hoof boots to support the hooves during the transition phase.

For horses that are prone to hoof abscesses, it’s important to evaluate their diet, ensure their detoxification capacity is supported, and potentially make dietary adjustments. In these horses, it appears that their metabolism is overburdened, causing the accumulation of waste products that cannot be adequately eliminated through the usual channels. Detoxification occurs, so to speak, through the hooves. For instance, well-intentioned but unfortunately unsuitable cleansing or detoxification treatments can lead to an increased occurrence of hoof abscesses in these horses. In such cases, it is crucial to consult a competent therapist who can develop a therapy plan suitable for the horse.

How can you avoid hoof abscesses in the future?

Naturally, it is not always possible to prevent the horse from getting foreign objects stuck in its foot, which can lead to the development of an abscess. However, with careful management and some preventive measures, you can certainly reduce the likelihood of such incidents. Primarily, ensure that no foreign objects like nails, screws, and so on are left lying around in the turnout, grooming area, and on pathways. Hooves should also be examined daily and meticulously cleaned.

Regular, professional hoof maintenance by an expert should be standard practice and is crucial for hoof health. The treatment schedule should be adjusted to match the current state of the hooves, and they should be treated or corrected accordingly. When necessary, suitable hoof protection measures should be employed.

Diet should also be optimized whenever feasible, as it appears to be the primary culprit, particularly in horses that experience abscesses more frequently. During periods of coat change, the horse’s metabolism experiences significant stress, increasing the likelihood of hoof abscesses. To prevent hoof abscesses, it’s crucial to relieve the liver and kidneys, as they are key detoxification organs in the horse’s body.