What is a Hoof Abscess?

Hoof abscesses have left horse owners confused, frustrated, and with a constantly stocked “just in case” poulticing kit for decades. Most horse owners have probably been faced with an abscess episode at least once, but do we know exactly what caused it in the first place? 


What is an abscess? 

A hoof abscess is a bacterial infection that occurs between the laminae and the hoof wall or sole. These bacteria can be aerobic and/or anaerobic in nature, which induces a build-up of gas and exudate (pus). This accumulation causes increasing pressure within these sensitive areas of the hoof, which can result in immense pain. An abscess can present very suddenly and can last for varying amounts of time depending on the degree of severity and treatment provided.  


What causes an abscess? 

An abscess is triggered by the entry of bacteria in amongst the laminae and hoof wall/hoof sole. How this bacterium makes its way into this sensitive area of the hoof can be a result of numerous reasons.  


Weather and environmental conditions are perhaps the most common cause, as moisture, or lack thereof, has an immense effect on the condition of our horses’ hooves. In extended dry periods, hooves can become brittle, with increased incidents of cracks and splits. These breakages can act as an entry point. The highest risk periods come when these dry climate systems are followed by wet weather, as these entry points are defined, leaving a clear path for bacteria. Significant risk of abscesses also arises in extended wet weather events. The moisture causes hooves to soften, allowing bacteria to seep in.  


In other cases, the weather may not contribute. Rather items around your paddocks and stables can be responsible for penetrating the hoof. This can be items such as stones and branches, as well as horseshoe nails that have pricked the laminae. Like a crack, they create a vulnerable point for bacteria entry. 


Trauma to the hoof, including deep bruising can also make the hoof susceptible to abscess via blood pools. They provide a cavity in which bacteria can produce gas and exudate. 


How to prevent an abscess? 

Although there is no 100% guaranteed way to completely eradicate the chances of getting an abscess, prevention and reducing the overall risk comes down to thorough hoof management. By promoting strong, healthy hooves we, as horse owners, decrease the likelihood significantly. This can be achieved via a combination of varied mechanisms.  

  • Farrier Care: Routine farrier care is essential to keeping hooves tidy and professionally monitored. Farriers can use their skill set to manage cracks that may appear, as well as support poor hoof structures via corrective shoeing. Your farrier can also help you devise a management plan for your horse, especially if their susceptibility to abscess is heightened due to laminitis history, sensitive hooves, thin soles, or the like.  
  • Nutrition: Research has repeatedly identified Biotin as one of the key nutrients contributing to hoof health. The National Research Council advises a 500kg horse receiving 15mg of Biotin per day may see benefits to overall hoof quality. Biotin can be found in a variety of supplements. Ranvet’s Hoof Food provides the advised 15mg daily dose per 30g. Its formula also contains essential co-factors, including zinc, methionine, sulphur, choline, magnesium, and gelatin to support hoof growth and repair. As the hoof can take between 6-9 months to grow from the coronet band to the weight-bearing level, maintaining supplementation is recommended. 


How to detect an abscess? 

In the early stages, a brewing abscess can be hard to detect, and it is often the case that visible signs arise very abruptly. Lameness and hesitancy to weight bear on the infected hoof can be severe and alarming to find as an owner. Swelling rising up the lower leg may accompany this immobility for some horses. The pressure of the exudate and gas will more commonly produce both heat and a digital pulse which can be used for further diagnosis. Heat can be felt on the hoof wall, whilst a throbbing pulse can be detected on the Digital Artery of the fetlock.  


Hoof testers are another key examination tool, often used by a farrier or vet. Application, which places pressure on both the hoof wall and sole, can identify the location within the suspected hoof where the abscess may be brewing.  


It is important to involve your Vet and/or Farrier in the confirmation and treatment plan of the diagnosis, especially in cases where the abscess has arisen from a foreign object protruding into the hoof. 


Treating an abscess 

Treatment times can vary from a few days to numerous weeks. Involving your Vet or Farrier in your treatment plan will help to manage your horse’s pain and the longevity of the abscess in some cases. At times, an abscess may be able to be “dug out”, releasing the accumulated pressure (and the exudate- be prepared for that!).  


In other cases, the abscess, or its remains post drainage, may need some encouragement. This is where poulticing and soaking practices come in! Soaking the affected hoof in warm water, with a mix of Betadine/Iodine and, or Epsom salts is a common practice. Poulticing is a similar concept, bandaging the specialised dressing (often wet down and may have products such as Betadine added as well), to the sole of the hoof, which continues to draw the abscess out for extended periods of time.  


Hoof abscesses certainly don’t follow a rule book! Good hoof health management is therefore key to helping reduce the likelihood of abscess. Farriery practices, as well as adequate nutrition, are prominent tools in supporting hoof health.  


Need a hand when it comes to your horse’s nutrition? Lucky Ranvet is a recognised world leader! Submit your horses’ diet online at https://www.ranvet.com.au/nutrition-centre/diet-evaluation/ for free, and receive a tailored report and recommendations prepared by one of our nutrition advisors.  


Written by Sharne H.  


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