Last Updated on December 21, 2022
A horse heel bulb abscess is a common problem that many horse owners come across, but luckily they are normally fairly simple to treat. However, some abscesses in the hoof can become more complex and difficult to cure. Let’s find out everything you need to know about treating a horse heel bulb abscess!
What Is A Horse Heel Bulb Abscess?
Abscesses of the horse’s hoof are a relatively common problem and can occur in many different sites around the hoof. An abscess occurs when a tiny amount of dirt or bacteria becomes trapped inside the body tissues. In the right conditions, the bacteria will quickly start to multiply.
These bacteria are trapped within the abscess site. As they multiply and then die, a build-up of dead cells and bacteria starts to form. This creates a thick white yellow liquid, known as pus.
There can be many reasons why a horse may develop a hoof abscess. For an abscess to occur, bacteria must be able to penetrate the body tissues. In the hoof, they may enter through a crack in the tissues or hoof wall, or an abscess may occur as a result of a penetrating injury such as a nail.
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How Is A Horse Heel Bulb Abscess Diagnosed?
Horses with hoof abscesses normally show a classic set of clinical signs. They will be severely lame on the affected limb, and may well hold the hoofs off the ground. Horses with hoof abscesses are often so lame that their owners are concerned that they have fractured the leg!
Another classic sign of hoof abscesses in horses is increased digital pulses. This means that an increased amount of blood is being pumped to the hoof in response to the surrounding inflammation of the Abscess. The digital pulses can be felt at the back of the fetlock.
It may be possible to detect localized pain within the hoof to locate the site of the hoof abscess. This can be tricky if the abscess is under the solid hoof wall, but if the horse has a heel bulb abscess this area may be painful when squeezed.
How Is A Horse Heel Bulb Abscess Treated?
The aim when treating a horse with a heel bulb abscess is to encourage the pus to burst out of the abscess. This is achieved by encouraging the bacteria to multiply as quickly as possible through the use of warmth. The heel bulbs are softened with moisture to allow the pus to track up to the skin surface and eventually burst.
There are a variety of ways in which heat and warmth can be applied to an abscess. The most popular way, particularly with a horse-heel bulb abscess, is to use a warm wet poultice. This helps to soften the skin and draw bacteria and pus up to the surface.
In some situations, the heel bulb can become too soft and the flesh may start to slough if repeated poulticing is applied. An alternative method used to draw out an abscess is a technique called hot tubbing. This involves standing the affected hoof in a tub of warm or hot water for up to 10 minutes several times a day.
While waiting for a horse heel bulb abscess to burst, the horse will feel a considerable amount of pain. Your veterinarian will normally prescribe painkillers to make your horse more comfortable.
Once the abscess bursts, you will need to continue to draw out the pus from the abscess as well as keep the site cleaned to prevent reinfection. Your veterinarian will normally advise wet poulticing for a few days until the majority of the pus is drawn out. After this, a dry poultice can be used to cover the Abscess site and prevent reinfection.
While treating a horse heel bulb abscess, you will need to keep the horse in a clean, dry place. Dirt and bacteria can easily track up through bandages and poultices into the abscess site, causing reinfection. The horse should be kept on dry bedding and never turned out into a muddy field.
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Can You Ride a Horse With a Hoof Abscess?
A horse with a hoof abscess should not be ridden unless the lameness has completely resolved. Hoof abscesses can be very painful for horses, particularly before they burst. They will often be slightly lame for some time after the abscess appears to have healed, as the inflammation surrounding the abscess sites takes some time to settle down.
The other issue with riding a horse with a hoof abscess is keeping the abscess site clean and dry. Any dirt or residue that enters the abscess site may become trapped, causing the abscess to return. It is a good idea to keep the site of the abscess covered with a dressing or boot until it has completely healed.
How Do You Wrap a Horse Abscess?
Wrapping a hoof abscess is a skill that every horse owner should learn, as it is one of the most common hoof problems of horses. The aim when wrapping a hoof abscess on a horse is to draw out any infection from the abscess site, whilst also keeping the area clean and dry. Not always an easy task, when horses do not tend to be fussy about where they place their feet!
During the early stages of wrapping an abscess, a wet poultice is normally used, as this helps to draw out the pus. Once it seems that most of the pus has gone, dry poultices will be used instead to keep the area clean.
You will need to use a bandage to hold the poultice in place, followed by a waterproof pad to keep the hoof dry. A good option is to use a horse boot, or you can tape over the bandage with duct tape.
Can a Horse Die From an Abscess?
Hoof abscesses in horses are one of the most common problems you will encounter; the vast majority will heal without any problems. The aim when treating a hoof abscess in a horse is to encourage the pus to burst from the hoof as quickly as possible. Once the pus can drain freely, the hoof tissue will start to heal from the inside.
The problem lies with hoof abscesses that lie very deep within the hoof, and those that do not burst easily. Pus will build up within the hoof, which can be very painful for the horse. When the pus lies close to certain important structures within the hoof it can start to cause some significant damage.
This can lead to a condition called osteomyelitis of the pedal bone, the main bone within the hoof. If this occurs, surgical treatment may be necessary to cut out a section of the hoof wall and debride the damaged bone underneath.
In very rare situations, this condition may not be curable, and the horse may suffer from ongoing lameness. If this is thought to affect the quality of life of the horse, it may lead to the euthanasia of the animal.
Can a Hoof Abscess Heal Without Bursting?
It is very unlikely that a hoof abscess in a horse would heal without bursting. The pus in an abscess is debris created by harmful bacteria, and the body cannot absorb this. Like any kind of abscess, it needs to burst and drain before it can heal.
In some situations, you may not even notice when a hoof abscess has burst. Sometimes the amount of pus is so tiny that it’s barely noticeable, or it may have burst from somewhere you were not expecting. When abscesses cannot be pared out by your veterinarian or farrier, they sometimes track up the hoof wall and burst out of the coronary band.
How to Tell When a Hoof Abscess is Healed?
Horse hoof abscesses can take a very long time to heal, and some will drain pus for a week or more. The aim when treating a horse hoof abscess is to draw out the pus as quickly as possible – this is normally done by paring away the hoof at the site of the abscess, then using a poultice to draw out the pus.
When the abscess is no longer draining the pus and the horse is not lame then it is very likely that the abscess has healed. You may have a hole or defect in the hoof, but the tissue underneath should have healed when the infection was drawn out.
The hole left behind by a hoof abscess may take some time to disappear. This is because the hoof of the horse grows very slowly, and it may take several months for the hoof to grow long enough for the defect to be cut out.
While you are waiting for this to happen, it is a good idea to plug the hole to keep dirt and debris at bay. Many farriers use anti-microbial clay for this purpose, or you can use cotton wool that has been soaked in an antiseptic solution.
Summary – Horse Heel Bulb Abscess
So as we have learned, a horse heel bulb abscess is normally fairly easy to treat, although some can be more complicated and drawn out than others. The best way to treat a heel bulb abscess in horses is to use a poultice to draw out the pus. This condition can be very painful for the horse, so a course of painkillers may be prescribed by your veterinarian.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on the best way to manage a horse heel bulb abscess! Are you getting frustrated that your horse has a frequently recurring heel bulb abscess? Or maybe you’ve had real success with a particular type of poultice and would like to share your ideas with us? Leave a comment below and we will get back to you!
How long does it take for a hoof abscess to burst?
The length of time it takes for a hoof abscess in a horse to burst will depend on the location and depth of the absence. A superficial abscess near soft tissue such as the coronary band may burst within a day or two. Deep-seated abscesses under the hoof wall may take several days or even weeks to track out to the skin surface.
How do you draw out a hoof abscess?
When drawing out a hoof abscess in horses, the aim is normally to provide heat and moisture to bring the abscess to a head. Heat encourages the bacteria within the abscess to multiply and moisture softens the skin surface, allowing the plus to burst out. This can be achieved by using poultices or standing the hoof in hot water several times a day.
Does Bute help with an abscess?
Bute will not help to cure a hoof abscess in horses, but it will help to relieve the pain felt by the horse. Bute, or phenylbutazone is an effective nonsteroidal anti inflammatory painkiller.
How long can a horse be lame from a hoof abscess?
The lameness that horses normally experience with a hoof abscess will generally get better very shortly after the abscess bursts.
Kate Chalmers is a qualified veterinary nurse who has specialized in horse care for the vast majority of her career. She has been around horses since she was a child, starting out riding ponies and helping out at the local stables before going on to college to study Horse Care & Management. She has backed and trained many horses during her lifetime and competed in various equestrian sports at different levels.
After Kate qualified as a veterinary nurse, she provided nursing care to the patients of a large equine veterinary hospital for many years. She then went on to teach horse care and veterinary nursing at one of the top colleges in the country. This has led to an in-depth knowledge of the care needs of horses and their various medical ailments, as well as a life-long passion for educating horse owners on how to provide the best possible care for their four-legged friends.
Kate Chalmers BSc (Hons) CVN, Dip AVN (Equine) Dip HE CVN EVN VN A1 PGCE