Horse Side Vet Guide ®

Equine Health Resource

Abscess on Head, Throat or Neck

An abscess is a closed infection and accumulation of white blood cells, that results in swelling.

When veterinarians see abscesses of the head, throat or neck we immediately think of Strangles, a highly contagious and common bacterial infection.

Particular characteristics – such as location, smell and color of pus, that veterinarians recognize as characteristic of different infections. However, the bacteria within an abscess must be cultured to confirm this professional hunch.

Abscesses in these areas can also be caused by other organisms or injuries (including dental infection or puncture wounds) and behave differently, yet look very similar to the untrained eye.

Diagnosis of any abscess requires clinical examination, needle sampling of pus (or sample of drainage), and culture in order to identify the specific bacteria. Ultrasound and/or radiography are sometimes helpful in identifying underlying causes like foreign bodies, and dental and bone infections.

In most cases, the most important part of treating any abscess is establishing drainage. Beyond that, the appropriate treatment depends on the underlying cause.

Antibiotics are not usually helpful for treatment of closed abscesses and may actually delay resolution of the problem.

A diagnosis of Strangles means that measures must be put into effect to prevent the spread of this disease to other horses. If the cause is different, then these measures are likely unnecessary.

QUESTIONS TO ASK MY VET

  • Is this a contagious (infectious) problem?
  • If so, what should I do to prevent disease in my other horses?
  • If not, what is the underlying cause of the abscess?
  • PREVENTION

    Always assume that an abscess on the head or neck is caused by Strangles until proven otherwise. Isolate the horse, and talk to your vet about taking measures to prevent the spread of Strangles to your other horses.

    Other causes of abscesses on head and neck are not necessarily preventable.

    Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP

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