Horse Health

Proper Care for Lacerations and Puncture Wounds

A horse with braids in it's hair runs in a pen.

It seems horses are always on the lookout for ways to injure either themselves or another horse, making lacerations and puncture wounds a common occurrence. Meggan Graves, DVM, clinical associate professor of large animal clinical sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Veterinary Medicine, shares her insights on preventative care, first-aid kits, lacerations, puncture wounds and more.

Preventative care for common injuries

Because lacerations and puncture wounds are so commonplace, preventative care is a good place to begin any discussion that includes them.

“The majority of lacerations I see that happen in the field or around the barn are going to be related to fencing or caused by a pasture mate,” Dr. Graves says.

View of a laceration from fencing located near a joint. Photo courtesy Dr. Meggan Graves.

She says that having appropriate fencing and regularly checking fencing are important aspects of preventative care.

“Some of the worst lacerations I see are from smooth wire,” Graves says.

According to Graves, many people choose smooth wire over barbed wire because they think it might be safer.

“Unfortunately, some of this smooth wire can be the most dangerous because once it gets wrapped around, it is not painful, and the horse keeps tugging and tugging, and the wire is going to strangulate whatever it is wrapped around.”

She explained that, sometimes, these injuries do not initially look bad. Then, two or three days later, strangulation from the lost blood supply is evident, even leading to severed tendons. For preventative care, Graves recommends regular inspections of fencing and using a board or square wire fencing, even if you must use a strand of electric fencing at the top, as the safest options.

Eyelid lacerations are another common type of injury that Graves sees. Stray nails, bucket hangers and snap links are the usual culprits. While you may be unable to eliminate them, being on the lookout for sharp ends and edges can help to prevent at least some of them.

Finally, lower leg injuries that occur while trailering are also commonplace. Applying leg wraps while trailering is another act of preventative care.

As for puncture wounds, Graves says that they are mostly found in areas where there is extra skin. She says that the inguinal area is one of these. Puncture wounds in the chest and behind or in front of the front leg are also common sites of injury. Though your veterinarian may wish to inspect them to make certain that there is not a foreign object inside, puncture wounds, she explains, will not be sutured. Instead, they are managed as an open wound. Because of this, flushing out and keeping them flushed out with cold hosing is important.

An annual tetanus vaccination, followed by a booster if the initial shot was administered more than six months from the time of injury, can also go a long way toward warding off potential problems.

An example of an eyelid laceration that required suturing. Fortunately, the injury healed well. Photo courtesy Dr. Meggan Graves.

First-aid kits

Beyond preventative care, first-aid kits are vital in preventing an unfortunate situation from worsening. While they can and should contain more than just those items needed for lacerations and puncture wounds, Graves says that as far as these are concerned, she likes to see a focus on bandage material. In addition, an inexpensive stethoscope can aid in detecting a high heart rate that may indicate an undetected fracture that can sometimes accompany a laceration, particularly one resulting from a well-placed kick. Finally, she advises having a thermometer in your first-aid kit is key. While at first, it may not seem like a likely candidate for aiding in the treatment of lacerations and puncture wounds, she says that taking a horse’s temperature early on can be important information for your vet to have when making treatment recommendations.

It seems horses are always on the lookout for ways to injure themselves, making lacerations and puncture wounds a common occurrence.
Instance of a nail lodged in a foot. Photo courtesy Dr. Meggan Graves.

As for recommended bandage material, she says that absorbent padding, cotton sheets, gauze and vet wrap, all with the idea of having the necessary materials for creating a layered bandage, are ideal supplies to have on hand. She further recommends keeping a roll of duct tape in first-aid kits. Though it is not a long-term solution, duct tape, she says, can be useful for creating a pressure bandage when needed to minimize blood loss.

“If you are worried that your horse may have lacerated an artery, the best thing you can do is to hold pressure for a minimum of five minutes,” Graves says.

She admits those five minutes can feel like a long time. Duct tape, she explains, can allow you to hold pressure while setting a timer for five minutes. She elaborates that one caveat about duct tape is never to apply it to the coronary band when placing a foot bandage, as this is where the blood supply to the hoof is located, an area where blood flow should never be compromised.

First response

Despite our best preventative care and efforts at preparedness, lacerations and puncture wounds can and do happen. Graves advises that your first step should be to simply clean the wound with soap and water. Even cold-hosing it for a long period will reduce swelling and flush out the wound. Even though it is tempting for owners to do so, she advises against applying ointments to the wound, at least initially.

“Ointments have a petroleum jelly-type base, making them very difficult to scrub out [of wounds] and stitch up, if necessary,” Graves explains.

It seems horses are always on the lookout for ways to injure themselves, making lacerations and puncture wounds a common occurrence.
Example of a nail in a foot missing important structures and heel bulb. Photo courtesy Dr. Meggan Graves.

Other wound treatments can make it difficult for your veterinarian to fully visualize the injury. If you suspect that the injury is serious enough to call your vet, it is best to clean the wound and leave it alone until he or she has an opportunity to examine it. Then, if applying an ointment is needed to aid in healing, your veterinarian will advise you on the best options for your horse’s specific injury. To further prevent infection during fly season, your vet may also advise you to apply a fly repellant around, rather than in, the wound.

In closing, whether minor or severe, preparedness and knowing how to react can help you to feel more confident the next time your horse faces an injury.

Knowing what is normal

Graves advises familiarizing yourself with your horse’s vital signs well before any injury happens.

“Most horses are going to have a heart rate between the mid-30s and 40s,” Graves says. “If it is high, in the 60s, you should be much more concerned and, at that point, have a veterinarian out for a full exam. Additionally, the normal temperature for horses ranges from 99 to 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Accurately relaying this information to your vet can play an important role in treatment.

When to consult your veterinarian

It seems horses are always on the lookout for ways to injure themselves, making lacerations and puncture wounds a common occurrence.
An example of a common laceration. Photo courtesy Dr. Meggan Graves.

Even if it is not an emergency, if you feel that the injury is borderline in terms of veterinary involvement, Graves says that most veterinarians with whom you have a good relationship would rather have an “err on the side of caution” call or text than waiting too late and potentially compromising recovery. Pictures, a detailed description and a location can be very beneficial information to relay. For example, injuries near a joint warrant a same-day veterinary visit, while those requiring antibiotics may be seen the next day. Your veterinarian may even advise leaving a wound open for draining. He or she will always be able to advise you on when and how to treat.

Pro tip

Although it has long been a recommendation, should you discover a nail in the sole or frog of your horse’s hoof, leave it in place. It is less well known how to accomplish that, especially if you must walk the horse to an area where you have electricity for X-rays. In this instance, Graves advises placing an entire roll of duct tape flat, like a doughnut, around the nail. She says you can use a second roll of duct tape to tape it securely while you slowly walk the horse to an area where he can be examined. This important tip not only keeps the nail from being pushed further in but also allows your veterinarian critical access to not only determine which areas of the foot are involved but how far in the nail goes, both significant to treatment.

The role of photos in treatment

Graves says that multiple clear photos that show a close-up of the injury and orient the injury on the horse’s body can be extremely helpful for your veterinarian, as can video clips that demonstrate how the injury is affecting your horse’s movement.

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