No Hoof, No Horse and other winter catastrophes.
It’s the stuff of torture…. Imagine a stick jammed up your fingernail, now it’s infected, now walk on it, yeah, with all your weight. Sound like fun? No, you can bet it isn’t for a horse with a hoof abscess either. Hoof abscesses are a common problem especially in winter. The most common complaint we hear goes something like this; “my horse was fine yesterday, now he can’t walk. No, he won’t put any weight on it… he almost falls down. How could he have broken his leg??” If you know anything about the “lameness scale” it’s easily a 4 out of 5 pain level, ye-ouch!
Fortunately, most foot abscesses are relatively easy to treat, the goal being to open the abscess so it can drain to the outside, releasing the pressure that is causing excruciating pain in the sensitive tissues of the foot. The abscess tract will follow a path of least resistance within the confined tissue space of the hoof. This means that it may follow the “white line” (junction of sensitive laminar tissues and hoof wall/sole) to break open at the coronary band. It may open at the heel bulb or frog or through the sole where there may have been a bruise or penetrating wound that started the whole mess in the first place. Once pressure is released the horse almost sighs with relief (well, maybe that’s just us) but everyone's relieved that the horse is almost immediately more comfortable. The next task is to facilitate drainage allowing the deep tissues to heal from the inside out. To do that we need to keep the foot as clean and dry as possible. It’s not difficult to bandage a foot (especially if someone else holds it up for you). Clean diapers make a great foot bandage. Wrap the hoof + diaper with duct tape over a topical antiseptic of choice and do your best to keep the foot clean and dry. Yeah, right you say, in the Pacific Northwest in the winter time? Well, like I said, do your best. Duct tape is a marvelous thing and if you simply can’t escape the muck you may just need to change the bandage more often. Three to ten days should take care of it. If the horse does not make steady progress towards pain free weight bearing or if it regresses despite treatment, call us, there may be something lurking deeper in the foot that needs more attention. Remember, no foot, no horse. Deep infections or penetrating wounds (like from stepping on a nail) are much more complicated and can even be life threatening.
So it’s well and good that hoof abscesses are treatable but wouldn’t it be nicer to catch them before they cause a grade 4 lameness, or better yet, to avoid them entirely? Let’s face it, our area in winter is a mud pit. Hooves soaked day and night in a muddy, bacterial soup tend to soften, making bruising more likely and allowing bacteria to breach the protective layers of sole, wall and skin. To combat continually wet days it’s ideal to have a clean, dry stall to put the animals in at night. You can clean out their muddy, wet feet, checking for embedded rocks or bruises and apply Thrush Buster as needed just before you put them up giving their feet a chance to dry out overnight. If you don’t have that luxury, you’ll need to be even more vigilant, noticing any signs of sore feet. Early detection and treatment is always better than trying to wish these problems away. Each animal is different and much depends on their individual anatomy and immune level to protect them from developing foot abscesses.
One of the first signs of a developing abscess may be an increased digital pulse or a bit of heat in the foot. Learning how to check the digital pulse can be helpful for catching these problems early. To feel the arterial pulseation of blood circulating into the feet you first need to know the anatomy. (see illustration below) Once you know where the arteries are located you can practice feeling for a pulse in your normal horse. It’s ok if you don’t feel much, you may not be able to feel the pulse in a normal horse. Try it again right after exercise, you may be able to feel it then if you’re quick enough. What you really want to identify is the slightly squishy, tubular structures that comprise the vein-artery-nerve bundles. These structures emerge from under the splint bones, coursing along the inside (medial) or outside (lateral) of the fetlock and pastern and then dive down into the foot. If you know what normal feels like for your horse, you’ll be much more likely to recognize abnormal when you feel it. And you will feel it... an increased digital pulse is a hallmark of foot abscess and of laminitis so learning to feel it is a good skill to have. Ask us to help you find a digital pulse during your horses next wellness exam.