Q&A: A rash of hoof abscesses

A variety of factors can contribute to the formation of hoof abscesses.

Q: I have a 13-year-old Clydesdale gelding who, up until last year, had never had any health issues. Now, however, he seems to have developed a susceptibility for hoof abscesses.

At one point he had one in three different hooves, one of which took the better part of seven months to clear up. Then he developed another one, which seemed to be doing OK, but a month later, the same one is back and it seems bad.

Why is this a problem all of a sudden? Nothing in his life has changed, from workload to feed. I have tried everything from Animalintex pads to packing his feet with raw potatoes! I hope you can give me some insights on this issue.

The sudden onset of abscesses in multiple hooves suggests a secondary cause beyond condition in the feet themselves.

A: Farriers and veterinarians see a lot of foot abscesses. Fluid-filled cavities that form under the sole or hoof wall, hoof abscesses can result from sole bruising, hoof cracks or puncture wounds. Often, they do not cause lameness and are essentially healed by the time we uncover them with routine trimming as the hoof wall grows out. More severe abscesses can be acutely painful to the horse. These may drain on their own, either through the bottom of the foot or at the coronary band, which is called graveling, or a veterinarian may cut a drainage channel. 

As you have described, there are many, many remedies for foot abscesses. Most involve drawing agents, which help to remove the material from the abscess. Animalintex is a veterinary poultice, but people also use potatoes, sugar, Betadine, Epsom salt and a myriad of other concoctions. Hoof abscesses are often not infected with bacteria but are the body’s way of removing damaged tissue, so antibiotics are usually not necessary. Pain relief is a very important part of treatment for an abscess, both from a humane perspective as well as to prevent damage to the other feet from excessive weight bearing.

Most abscesses respond to treatment within a couple of weeks. Abscesses that fail to heal may contain a foreign body such as a wood splinter, a nail, a bone chip or even a bone infection.

Your horse seems to be a totally different story. The sudden onset of abscesses in multiple feet and the persistent nonhealing abscess make me suspect the problem does not originate in your horse’s feet but rather is secondary to something else. If his feed, footing and work have not changed, then we need to look inside the horse.

Laminitis caused by Cushing’s disease (pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, PPID) or equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) is the first thing to rule out. Your veterinarian can draw blood to run the appropriate tests to diagnose these conditions. Radiographs of the feet are also very important to determine whether the coffin bones have dropped or rotated, which can predispose a horse to abscesses. These x-rays will also give your farrier critical information about how to manage any changes in the feet.

Click here to learn more about PPID in horses. 

If your horse is positive for Cushing’s, it can be managed with the medication pergolide, which is administered daily. If your horse has EMS, a diabetes-like condition, you’ll need to make management changes to reduce the sugars in his diet and possibly encourage him to lose weight. Once these underlying conditions are controlled, and any hoof damage has been addressed, the hoof abscesses will decrease in frequency and severity.

Bruce A. Connally, DVM,
MS Wyoming Equine
Longmont, Colorado

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #461

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