Foot abscesses can be extremely distressing for both horse and owner.

The sight of your pride and joy suddenly lame and unable to put any weight on a hoof can trigger fears of serious injury such as a leg fracture.

The most likely culprit however is a foot abscess and the good news is, it is very treatable, especially if reported early.

What is a foot abscess?

A foot, sole or hoof abscess occurs when bacteria becomes trapped in the sensitive tissue of the foot, causing infection.

The horse’s own immune system works to fight the infection, resulting in a pocket of pus being formed, causing pressure and extreme pain in the hoof.

How do foot abscesses occur?

Abscesses usually occur as a result of injury, poor hoof quality or poor hoof care.

Any foreign matter such as dirt, sand, gravel or bacteria gains access to the hoof via a crack or a puncture. This puncture can sometimes even occur at shoeing with old nail holes often responsible.

Foot abscesses tend to be more common during wetter months when water makes the hoof expand and contract more, leading it to become more vulnerable to the formation of abscesses. Equally, extremely dry conditions can also make the hoof more prone to cracks.

A bruised sole can also develop an abscess with blood clots and damaged tissue particularly vulnerable to infection.

How are foot abscesses diagnosed?

Heat and a prominent pulse in the affected foot are the first telltale signs of a foot abscess. A pair of hoof testers are then used to gently pinpoint the abscess’s exact location.

If fitted, a shoe will be removed to allow the hoof to be properly cleaned. Your vet will search for a crack, puncture or discolouration at the white line.

A hoof knife may also be used to locate any pus pockets. Occasionally, foot abscesses are particularly difficult to find.

The foot would then be poulticed allowing the abscess to develop or ‘ripen’ ahead of a further investigation.

In rare circumstances, an X-ray may be recommended to rule out more serious injury.

How are foot abscesses treated?

The hoof will be soaked in an antiseptic bath and the abscess or pus pocket drained. This may be initially painful but will quickly lead to much greater comfort for the horse.

The poultice may need to be changed several times in the first 48 hours to ensure all the pus is drained.

Anti-inflammatories and occasionally antibiotics will be prescribed and a tetanus shot may also be recommended if the horse has not been vaccinated.

Damaged tissue surrounding the abscess will usually be bandaged and may take quite a few days to heal before lameness is resolved.

The horse should be kept in clean, dry conditions while it recovers.

If notable improvement is not evident within 48 hours, a more exploratory investigation should be undertaken.

Preventing foot abscesses

Learning about proper hoof care is imperative for horse owners and talking to your farrier or veterinarian is advised.

Prevention of abscesses is not always possible but there are steps that can be put in place to minimise their occurrence:

  • examine your horse’s feet daily, focussing on a strong, healthy white line
  • ensure they are regularly trimmed and shod by a qualified farrier
  • try to avoid extremely wet and extremely dry conditions
  • try to remove rocks and other sharp objects from your horse’s turnout area that could potentially cause problems. Wood chips have also been known to do damage.
  • hoof dressings may be applied daily or several times a week to horse’s with poor quality hooves

Contact us today

If you suspect your horse has a foot abscess, it is important to act quickly by engaging the services of a qualified equine veterinarian. This will ensure the quickest recovery period for the horse.

If left untreated, a bacterial infection in the hoof may spread to the pedal bone which is a much more serious issue and may demand long term treatment.

At Newmarket Equine, we provide a dedicated service to the thoroughbred racing industry with the practice having a long and proud history based around the excellence of our staff.

Our vets are experienced in all matters including medical, reproduction and quarantine procedures.

State-of-the-art equipment is provided including digital radiology, digital ultrasound, shock wave therapy, video endoscopy and IRAP processing. 

Contact us today to book an appointment.

The information contained in this article is general in nature and does not take into account your horse’s individual needs. You should consider whether the information is appropriate to your horse’s needs, and seek professional advice from a qualified vet.

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