Lymphangitis in horses is commonly known by a number of names: vasculitis, big leg disease, staph infection, or cellulitis. All these names can be correct: The suffix, itis, means “inflammation” of the lymphatic system (lymphangitis), blood vessels (vasculitis), or subcutaneous connective tissue (cellulitis). Whatever you call it, this recurrent bacterial infection and leg swelling affects many horses. Affecting many different breeds, lymphangitis in horses is a frustrating cause of lameness and loss of money and time.
Symptoms of Lymphangitis in Horses
Many horses will “stock up”, with subcutaneous edema (fluid swelling) in two or more legs (usually the hind legs). We see this minor problem frequently in horses that experience a significant decrease in exercise. Muscle contraction and elevated blood pressure are the typical forces that move blood and lymph fluid back toward the heart. The horse’s lower legs have no muscles to contract. Therefore, they rely on one-way valves in the vessels to hold the fluids and compression of the frog to impel them upward. Stocking up usually resolves with exercise.
Lymphangitis and Sudden Hind Leg Lameness in Horses
Lymphangitis is dramatically different to “stocking up”. The horse experiences abrupt or short-term onset of a hugely swollen leg (usually a hind leg), extreme pain, and an elevated temperature. Frequently, these horses will not eat. This is most likely due to the fever and discomfort. Many horses will be obviously depressed, and some will tremble, breathe rapidly and sweat. On examination, the limb will have “pitting edema” (when you squeeze it, you will see imprints of your fingers left in the tissue), and the horse will raise the leg so far up to avoid your touch that he could fall over.
Causes of Lymphangitis
The best educated guess is that a cut or even simple abrasion to the leg allows bacteria to enter the body. Often, this is a Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, or Escherichia coli species. The bacteria reproduce quickly, causing the inflammatory reactions of heat and swelling. The lymphatic system drains fluid from the leg, filtering it through lymph nodes that try to remove foreign pathogens. The lymph nodes are overwhelmed and can, themselves, become infected. Lymph ducts and blood vessels become damaged and swollen and lose elasticity, with blood and lymph pooling on top of the one-way valves. The heart continues to pump fluid in, but the exits are blocked.
Treating Lymphangitis in Horses
It is always vital to contact your vet if you suspect lymphangitis or if your horse is lame. Your vet may administer antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and / or painkillers. The most challenging part of treatment is getting the horse to move. Movement is necessary to help promote fluid to travel back up the leg. Horses suffering from lymphangitis will resist walking, even though is it absolutely necessary for their recovery.
Ice and compression may also be useful in helping to treat lymphangitis in horses. Ice and compression can help by limiting the inflammatory response, which provides pain relief. Many owners have found that ice and compression can shorten the duration of the symptoms when used in conjunction with Bute. It is important to note that the leg should not be left wet, as this could compromise the skin further. Cryochaps can be applied as a dry application if required. Alternatively, wipe the leg down with a wet sponge to just lay the hair flat. This will provide more cold transfer without soaking the leg.
Cryochaps Ice Boots for Horses
For recurrent cases, early detection and treatment of swelling might improve the outcome. Lymphangitis is an aggravating problem that seriously damages a horse’s athletic career and is frustrating for owners and vets. Have your Cryochaps ready for any recurrent episodes of lymphangitis and always seek veterinary advice. Purchase Cryochaps compression ice boots for horses today.