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Wet weather woes: the hooves

By Daniel H. Grove, DVM - February 1st, 2017 - Ask the Vet

AskTheVetWe’re in the middle of winter, and a recent question reached me regarding the wet weather and horses’ feet: What kind of issues do we face, and how do we avoid and treat these problems?

With the increased moisture of the season, many areas of the country see an increase in certain problems. The No. 1 problem I encounter that increases with rainy season is hoof abscesses. A hoof abscess is an area of infection that can be found most anywhere in the hoof. They can be closer to the sole or they may try to erupt in the coronary band. In these cases, they are often times called a gravel. For these abscesses, you need three things: 1. bacteria, 2. a medium for them to grow, and 3. the body’s response (pus) to the infection.

Blood from bruising of the hoof makes a great medium most of the time, but in winter, the extra moisture softens the hoof along with packed in manure and this can make for great growing material for the bacteria. This softened hoof is now compromised, and the bacteria take off. The body tries to fight the infection by sending it its first line of defense, white blood cells. Most everyone has experience with this process at least as teenagers when we usually get acne. The same process is occurring in the foot, but it is much more painful. The build-up of this fluid in normal skin makes the skin swell and deform. In the hoof, a rigid structure, the swelling has nowhere to go. Until the body breaks down a path for the pus to escape, or someone helps it along, this process can be very painful or not felt at all. Just like real estate, it is all about location, location, location!

Thrush is another disease process that wet, wintery conditions can bring forth. It is a bacterial infection of the hoof. The hoof has a bad odor. It also typically has areas that are abnormally black and soft, most commonly in the sulci (the deep grooves on the either side of the frog). For the bacteria to grow, just as with an abscess, you need heat, moisture, and a food source. The hoof provides the food and heat, the moisture in the ground supplies the last ingredient. Thrush is extremely common and usually easy to resolve.

Prevention of both thrush and hoof abscesses have many things in common. First is husbandry. Keep the feet dry. If your horse is in an outside pen, there are a few things you can do to help. One, have a shelter over the stall to limit rainfall in the stall. Second, to prevent water from entering the stall from runoff, raise the stall by adding dirt. Next, for both of these conditions, you need bacteria. The bacteria are most likely going to be from manure and urine spots in the corral. Clean your stalls twice daily. Clean out urine holes. Add bedding to absorb the moisture from urine and manure.

The treatment of hoof abscesses starts with relieving the pressure. Having your farrier or veterinarian pinpoint the location with hoof-testers and digging down in the hoof is one of the quickest ways to relieve the pressure. Sometimes the abscesses are too deep and need more time to get to drain. Warm water with Epsom salt soaks soften the hoof and increase blood flow to the hoof the help the breakdown so the pus can escape and drain. Another way to accomplish this is to poultice the hoof with one of many products to “draw out” the pus. After the abscess is open and draining, it is good to keep the hoof clean by having it covered with either a wrap or hoof boot until the abscess is healed.

Thrush is usually much easier to resolve. The bacteria that causes it is very easy to kill. First, just as with prevention, picking out the feet to keep dirt and manure out of them helps tremendously. Next, you can apply a topical treatment. There are many commercially available products for this, but there are some very inexpensive ones if you are on a budget. A 20 percent bleach-and-water solution applied to the bottom of the foot daily can dry it out and kill off the bacteria. Tincture of iodine can also be used, but it is a bit more challenging to come by these days due to the potential for it to be used in the manufacturing of illegal drugs. Hydrogen peroxide can also be used.

There are a few other conditions that can be exacerbated by the moisture of winter. A couple of them would be canker and scratches. These diseases are more complex and usually require intervention by your veterinarian. The key to preventing them is moisture control and keeping the animals clean. Remember, as Benjamin Franklin said even though it was about fire safety, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!”

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