Cellulitis is a bacterial infection that causes severe swelling of the soft connective tissue under the skin. It can often be seen in the legs. Given the condition’s seemingly fast onset and dramatic appearance, horses and ponies with cellulitis–especially if they are lame or unwilling to move–can sometimes look like they have a severe injury, such as a bowed tendon or a fracture. Call your veterinarian before you do anything, advises Hagyard Equine Medicine Institute.
Many different factors can cause cellulitis. Cellulitis can be caused by various factors, including cracked heels, dew poisoning or impaired lymphatic flow. A horse may also get cellulitis after a viral infection causes vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels) or after an injury that causes long-term swelling that can lead to bacteria and viruses proliferating.
Fallon stated that she sees it all year. Fallon said that she sees it more often during the wet seasons because of dew poisoning and mud rash conditions. Horses who are always in a moist environment may develop defects in the soft tissues of the coronet band, heel bulbs and hoof. These defects can be a breeding ground for bacteria.
Cellulitis can be detected in horses regardless of the reason. Cellulitis can cause severe, painful, and sometimes even fatal swelling. Cellulitis can cause a leg to look “stovepipe”, and skin may crack or become abscessed. A fever can also be seen in horses.
Fallon advised that horses should be taken at their temperature. Fallon advised that horses running at 102 degrees could have stress-induced injuries such as a fracture or a badly bowed tendon. If they are running a fever, it could be due to an active inflammatory process in their body that is related to an infection.
Cellulitis can often start in the leg. It usually starts around the heels, pastern or fetlock.
Fallon said that it could reach to the elbow on a front leg or the gaskin on a hind leg. Oedema can be pitting, interstitial or both. You can poke your finger into oedema and get an impression. Sometimes horses will have so much oedema that the serum seeps from their skin.
A chronic lymphangitis is a form of chronic cellulitis in horses with impaired lymphatic drainage. Lymphangitis, or impaired lymphatic flow, can lead to infection in the affected limb by allowing fluids to pool instead of being drawn out as normal. Fallon said that if there is a lot of stagnant or sequestered fluid, it can be a breeding ground for bacteria and lead to a full-blown infection.
What can you do with your horse if he has cellulitis?
Reducing the Swelling
Fallon states that cellulitis and lymphangitis both require fluid removal. Fallon says that hand-walking the horse several times per day is a great way to get the fluid out. However, there are other ways you can draw the fluid from the limb. Hydrotherapy can be used to treat chronic lymphangitis and cellulitis and alternating warm-and cold-water treatments.
Fallon stated, “If there is any way to exercise or move that leg, the muscle contractions can help move that lymphatic liquid up the leg.” Exercise is important. It’s crucial that the animal can move freely.
Fallon stated that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like flunixin or bute (Banamine) are important in helping reduce swelling. Diuretics such as furosemide (Salix) and corticosteroids can also be helpful. However, antibiotics, diuretics, and corticosteroids should only be administered to patients under the supervision of a veterinarian.
While bandaging is a practical option, Fallon warns that it is important to bandage your horse for cellulitis properly. A poorly applied bandage can allow fluid to accumulate and stagnate. Consult your veterinarian for advice on how and when to bandage your horse’s case.
Low-dose aspirin therapy may be useful in chronic cases such as lymphangitis. However, it is best to consult your veterinarian before you try this. Fallon stated that you should be looking for ways to improve lymphatic drainage and vascular flow. “But exercise is the key component. It would help if you were active to activate passive lymphatic drainage.
Fallon stated that if a horse has cellulitis, he will likely also treat it with a broad-spectrum antibiotic. This is to combat any secondary bacterial infections that may have occurred due to the oedema of the soft tissues.
Be on the Lookout for Recurrence
Cellulitis is a condition that horses suffer from and are more likely to get again.
Fallon stated that they can and do. “The more they have recurrent cellulitis cases or lymphangitis, the more likely it is to affect the same limb or limbs again.” It could flare up again if there is inflammation. Cellulitis can recur if there is inflammation in the body.