Of course I know what abscesses are… They are nasty migrations of infection that open up and drain.
Norma has one on her coronet band.
I also know that abscesses are often associated with laminitis and wet weather. I know that you soak an abscess and that they are really painful.
But, when I had to think about abscesses since I was now dealing with one, I realized that there was so much I didn’t know…
What creates an abscess in a hoof? Why does wet weather make more? Why does laminitis promote them?
I never bothered to find out about abscesses because I had never known one before.
But, now I had met Mr. Nasty, head-on. So, I needed to educate myself. I asked my vet and Mr. Google to kindly explain ‘abscess’ to me.
WHAT MY VET SAID
My vet is young and sharp and fresh and willing and wonderful. He also has a very clinical mind that speaks from a place of booksmart that eludes me. Luckily, he is able to translate for a simple lay person like myself. So, after we found the abscess and did our Hallelujah dance, I asked him WHY. Why does an abscess usually follow laminitis? What creates an abscess of the coronet band?
(We are not addressing any other kind of abscess. For example, pigeon fever creates horrible abscesses… Or any foreign object that impales and enters a horse may come out in an abscess. We are only speaking of the hoof kind of abscess.)
OK, so my vet said that when a horse has laminitis, the laminae separates, ever so slightly, from the hoof wall. During this process, bacteria can migrate up into the hoof. If one is lucky, the bacteria is battled by the horse’s immune system. The immune system sends out a bunch of white blood cells to encapsulate the bad things in a nice river of fluid (pus – OK, I said it) which protects the body from the invader. This nasty boat of gunk now knows it needs to exit the body so it migrates around until it finds an ‘out’ point.
If the horse is lucky, that out point is his sole. With gravity in its favor, the nasty boat flows down the junk river and escapes out the bottom of the foot.
But, if you aren’t as lucky, the nasty boat takes a turn up river and pushes itself up the hoof wall until it reaches the sensitive coronet band where it explodes out the side like an angry boil.
The reason this is so painful, well, as my vet explained it, goes something like this: (in his words) Imagine that you have sunburned the bottoms of both of your feet (laminitis) and then you grow a huge blood blister under your toenail beds. Between the blistering pain of the soles of your feet and the huge pressure of the “blood blister” (abscess), the pain is almost unbearable.
OTHER CAUSES OF HOOF ABSCESSES
Another way a horse can get an abscess is if he steps on a stone and either cuts his sole (hence opening another area for infection) or if he causes bruising. Sometimes a stone bruise can turn into an abscess as it heals. However, stone bruised abscesses usually come out the sole.
Another cause is wet ground. It isn’t the wet ground, but more that continuous wet ground softens the hoof. That softened hoof is more easily penetrated. And, as we all know, that soft hoof is mucking around in not-so-clean mud. The bacteria in the not-so-clean mud enters the soft hoof and you get abscesses. This is why Fall is called Abscess Season.
Another obvious cause of an abscess would be a nail or any other type of puncture. Ouch. Hopefully your horse had his tetanus vaccine.
It is smart to clean out hooves often, especially in wet weather… And, of course, it is smart to clean out hooves often anyway because then you can watch for bruises and cuts and softening or whatever else might go wrong with the hoof. I know, I know, who wants to clean out a mucky, gucky hoof in rainstormy weather? I know I don’t. But, it is better to catch bad stuff like thrush or (heaven forbid) canker, laminitis or an abscess EARLY.
LAMINITIS IS VERY COMPLICATED. ABSCESSES AREN’T
Laminitis is very complicated. It could be caused by any number of factors and the complications can be numerous and from all sides. Abscesses are abscesses. They are very painful but once you know what you are dealing with, you can most often fix them.
We were doing a Hallelujah dance when Norma blew the nasty boat through her coronet band channel locks because we couldn’t understand why she was still so painful in her left front. Since laminitis is so complicated, yet her foot wasn’t showing signs of sinking, we couldn’t come to a solution. Once we found the abscess, all became clear. Now we had an explanation and a process.
DIAGNOSING AN ABSCESS
According to my vet and Mr. Google, usually one can test the hoof by applying pressure with hoof testers or by just using strong fingers. Imagine if you had a blood blister under a toenail. Someone could push on all the other toes and foot – you’d be fine – but press on the bad one and you would jump and slap the person, maybe. Well, that is what it is like for a horse when you use hoof testers. “Does it hurt here?” no. “OK, does it hurt here?” nope. “Here?” nada. “How about…? AAAAGHHHHHH! You get my drift…
Once you know, kind-of, where the abscess lies, you can treat it.
Sometimes you can even see the abscess in the form of a blood spot or black spot (dark blood) on the sole.
But with Norma, she didn’t show any more pain with the hoof testers. Her entire hoof was sensitive, but no one spot was really painful. We didn’t see any bruising or dark spots on her sole. We had no idea that she had a huge abscess brewing deep inside.
Sometimes you don’t know they are there until they burst.
WHAT TO DO WITH AN ABSCESS
Soak it. Draw it out. Help the body get rid of it.
Mr. Google had a billion recipes for poultices and soaks. I’ll get to those in a minute.
My vet told me (I called him when I discovered the abscess exit point) to help it drain as best I could… the first thing I should do was to soak her foot in warm water, Epsom Salts and Betadine. Easy. Except she wouldn’t let me soak her foot. And, if a donkey doesn’t want to do something, she won’t. (Remember, the donkey put the ‘stubborn’ in the mule…). So, I called him back. He then told me to make a poultice out of the Epsom Salts and Betadine. Put that on a clean cotton swab and wrap that. I did. But the abscess was very stubborn and was not draining rapidly.
So, my vet came out and gave me Animalintex pads. These are so cool! First of all, they are inexpensive (Yay!) and fairly easy to apply. The idea is that they are prepared with the drawing agents already embedded into the cotton. They have a plastic face that helps create heat (helps create more draw) and a plastic bottom that protects the ingredients. All you have to remember is “shiny side down”. It is easy. First you cut the pad according to the type of abscess you have (sole or coronet band). Then, you soak the pad and squeeze out the excess water. Finally, you position the pad (we put ours on the coronet band and longways down her hoof wall and then under her sole to hopefully draw out the abscess through the sole as well). If you are lucky, the equine will allow you to affix the pad with adhesive, elastic vet wrap.
You should have seen my vet apply the poultice pad… One, two, three DONE! I felt like I was watching calf roping… Grab, pull, wrap, tie and Ole!
You should have seen me do it. The wrap looked like the rodeo clown applied it. Yeesh. But, it was on there. Norma was much more obliging to the vet than to me…
Anyway, you change the pad every 24 hours even though the pack says every 48. Fun. But, better than watching your horse suffer laminitis and not know why…
DIGGING IT OUT
OY. I cannot even imagine the pain associated with digging out an abscess. Maybe a better term would be “puncturing” the abscess to help it drain.
I know farriers do this often and I’m sure that is fine… but I’d rather have my vet do it so that pain could be addressed and infection could be watched. In any event, puncturing the abscess does relieve the pressure and allows the infection to drain. The sooner it is gone, the better.
Oh my word… When I asked Google about poultices, I read so many recipes, I felt like Julia Child. I learned about every drawing agent under the sun from Linseed and Wintergreen Oil to Slippery Elm — the homeopathic remedies abounded. Dr. O’Grady (a known vet specializing in hooves) said:
“Another useful form of poultice is a combination of wheat bran and Epsom Salts (2 parts bran and 1 part salts). This poultice is cumbersome but has certainly withstood the test of time. Packing the foot with Ichthammol or a combination of Ichthammol and glycerin is also used frequently with good results reported.”
He also suggests using disposable diapers as a foot covering and then wrapping the diapers. I liked that. Easy, Clean and they already have sticky tabs!
My parting thoughts are to keep the horses feet healthy and hard. Hard feet help prevent any cracks in the soles/hoof wall that would let in bacteria. Watch for stone bruises or injuries. Keep betadine, Epsom Salts, elastic wrap and diapers on hand.
But, my biggest and best advise would be to practice wrapping the hoof with a slippery something. I swear, trying to get a very sore hoof wrapped in a slippery poulticed pad with an elastic wrap in the works is like trying to keep kittens in a basket. So tough. I swear I must have dropped the poultice pad in the shaving half a dozen times. When I’d grab for the pad, I’d invariably drop the starter part of the elastic in the shavings as well, which rendered that piece useless. So, I’d wet and clean the pad, again, re-start the elastic and try again while Norma was pulling her foot away from the very weird sensation she had never felt before – over her incredibly painful spot that I was pressing against. It was like a three ring circus. When it was finally done I almost cried. Norma almost cried. But, we ended the event with a treat so she almost forgave me. Of course, she is a donkey so she will never forget… and that makes me so eager to do it all over again in 24 hours. Not.
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