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What Is Thrush and What Do I Do About It?

What is it?

Thrush is usually a rather benign disease that attacks the frog and surrounding tissue. It is primarily found in the sulci (the grooves along side and down the center of the frog). It is characterized by a dark, often black, putrid slimy discharge. It is usually associated with poor frog growth and a ragged disintegration of the frog tissue. Occasionally a case will become chronic and complicated with deep involvement of the sensitive structures and may, in worst case scenarios, involve the tendons. These cases are hard to distinguish from canker, and very difficult to cure.

What causes thrush?

A little critter called spherophorus necrophorus is most often to blame. It is an anaerobic (lives without oxygen) bacterium that lives in the digestive tracts of animals world wide. Poor sanitation, dirty stalls, manure filled paddocks and wet conditions are major factors that predispose the foot to thrush. Contracted or overly high heels that trap debris also contribute to a horse’s chances of contracting thrush. But the primary cause of this disease is lack of thorough cleaning of the feet. S. necrophorus in small colonies is easily killed by air and light. This bacterium loves dark wet unsanitary places like the bottom of a horse’s foot. It can set up housekeeping and multiply prolifically, feeding on the frog tissue itself.

How is thrush detected?

A foul odor that smells like a cross between rotting garbage and stinky socks, and a black slimy discharge are the main clues. The frog may be covered with this discharge, or there may be some deep in the sulci along side the frog and down the center of it. The sulci may be deeper than normal. You may also see it in the white chalky exfoliating sole around the frog. The white powdery stuff is NOT thrush. That is normal shedding of the sole.

In advanced cases, the frog will be atrophied and have a shredded, disintegrated, mushy look to it, with loose, ragged flaps of tissue hanging off. (Loose flaps alone do not signify thrush. Horses shed their frogs in the spring and fall along with their coats. These flaps, if uninfected, are normal. Your farrier will trim them off at his/her next visit. If these flaps appear loose and about to come off, you can grab them with your hands and pull them off.) Your horse may be sensitive to the hoof pick when you dig down into the sulci. In very serious cases you may draw blood. Your horse may also be lame.

What can be done to treat thrush?

In very mild cases, simply keeping your horse in a clean, dry environment and thoroughly picking his feet every day, especially the sulci, may be all that is required. In mild cases, you may need to use an over the counter remedy. There are several available in tack shops and feed stores. You should discuss treatment with your farrier and/or veterinarian. They can recommend the right product to you, as there are some that are more effective than others. With the right product and diligence on your part, thrush can be cleared up an a few days to a week or two.

What about serious cases?

In advanced cases you will need the help of your farrier and your veterinarian. They will need to debride the effected area and remove as much of the diseased tissue as possible. There may be a good deal of blood associated with this tissue removal if the thrush is advanced enough. This is followed by aggressive treatment.

If the center cleft of the frog is deeply involved, you will have to clean it out every day and pack it with medication and cotton. This is done by hooking a cotton ball on the end of a clean hoof pick, and swabbing it through the cleft, all the way to the bottom. It will come out covered with gunk and slime, and your horse may complain that it hurts. Repeat this process with a clean cotton ball each time, until the last one comes out clean. Then soak as many cotton balls as needed in Betadine solution or a similar product (DO NOT use the scrub, as the soap will irritate sensitive tissue), and pack them down in the cleft. Pack it tight and full. Repeat this treatment every day and keep your horse in a clean, dry environment. The rest of the frog should be treated with a commercial remedy or one your vet gives you.

You will have to do this for a long time. The frog tissue will eventually fill in the cleft. It must grow from the inside out. If the cleft is deeply involved, this can take several months. If you stop treatment too soon, the thrush will return and you will be back to square one.

More serious treatment may take the form of your vet packing the affected areas with medication and wrapping the feet to keep them clean. S/he may want to administer a tetanus shot and antibiotics as well. The bandages and packing will have to be replaced every day or two. If you do not feel qualified to do this, you should ask your vet to return and do it for you. A bandage that does not stay on is not going to do your horse any good.

Your farrier may be able to make this task easier by applying a hospital plate to the shoe. This is a cover, usually made of aluminum, that is bolted to the bottom of the shoe to keep medication in and dirt out. You should discuss this option with your farrier and veternarian to decide which method is best for you.

Once the thrush has been killed, treatment will get easier. Topical treatment two or three times a week should be sufficient medication. You will still need to be diligent about cleaning your horse’s feet and keeping his stall and turn out clean and dry.

Over the next several months, the frog tissue will grow out and appear normal, as long as there is no relapse.

What are the chances of a full recovery?

With aggressive, diligent treatment, the prognosis is good. Most horses recover completely. The more serious the infection, the more guarded the prognosis.

How can I prevent thrush?

Keep your horse’s stall and turn out clean and dry. Thoroughly pick out your horse’s feet every day, whether you ride or not. Dig all the way to the bottom. You cannot hurt a healthy foot with a hoof pick. If your horse says “Ouch,” that is a sign of a problem. During damp weather it is a good practice to use a thrush remedy about twice a week for preventative reasons. Regular farrier care is part of this regimen. Your farrier should see your horse every 4 to 6 weeks whether he’s shod or not. With proper care, thrush should be a problem that other people have.

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