Hoof abscess in the horse: everything you need to know

A common cause of lameness, particularly in wet weather conditions following a long dry period, is a sub-solar hoof abscess, also known as pus in the foot.

Tiny cracks appear in the dry hoof wall and allow moisture, dirt and bacteria to enter. Infection sets in, followed by a build-up of pus that, within the restricting hoof cavity, soon becomes extremely painful.

How to recognise a hoof abscess

  • Be vigilant of any slight or intermittent lameness that becomes more pronounced until the horse almost bears no weight on the affected leg
  • More weight may be carried on the toe to protect the heel
  • The affected foot may feel hotter than the other feet
  • There may be a noticeable or pounding digital pulse towards the back of either side of the fetlock
  • The leg may become filled and swollen
  • There may be severe pain and distress
  • If not drained, the abscess will eventually burst through the coronary band

How to treat a hoof abscess

Arrange a visit from either the farrier or vet as soon as is reasonably possible. It is likely that the shoe will need to be removed to find the hoof abscess, which, once located and drained, will bring rapid relief.

H&H veterinary advisor Karen Coumbe says: “It’s usually unnecessary to treat pus in the foot with antibiotics, as it is better to drain the abscess to eliminate the infection, particularly since antibiotics do not penetrate properly into the hoof and horn of the horse’s foot.”

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The farrier or vet will advise how to clean the site, perhaps with antiseptic or hydrogen peroxide. Traditionally, tubbing the foot in warm salty water has been used.

When poulticing feet, it is best to encourage the abscess to drain downwards to avoid poulticing the soft skin of the coronary band. Poulticing the hard horn will encourage the abscess to burst, but it’s not recommended to use a wet poultice for more than three days or the hoof will become soft.

The area should be kept covered until it has healed sufficiently to prevent any dirt from entering the wound. Disposable nappies make very effective dressings for this purpose.

While some vets will recommend stabling the horse during treatment, many owners continue to turn their horses out but protecting the dressing with a thick plastic bag secured with thick strong tape. Take care not to cause a pressure sore when taping over the hoof covering.

Read the latest expert veterinary advice in Horse & Hound’s Vet Clinic, published in the magazine every Thursday