On Monday night I showed up at the barn around 7:00 p.m. to ride once the day cooled off. To my dismay, I found that Freedom’s knee was hugely swollen with cellulitis. I had wrapped his legs because he’d felt a bit stocked up the night before and because the swelling had nowhere to go except the knee, the effect was horrifying. Visualize a grapefruit.
Almost immediately I saw the cause: a scrape less than an inch long. Before I called the vet I scrubbed the wound to make sure it wasn’t a puncture wound (didn’t look like it to me, but a puncture would where a joint is involved can be very serious). Normally I would also shave the area around the cut but I had sent my clipper blades out to be sharpened! My guess was cellulitis but since it involved a joint I wanted to makes sure I got the right treatment for it.
Cellulitis is a skin infection that is caused by bacteria. Its entry point is a cut or even a small scrape (it’s amazing how small that scrape can be!) and becomes a subcutaneous infection. It manifests itself in heat and swelling in just one limb. The horse frequently will run a temperature. Sometimes your horse will be lame; in Freedom’s case his knee was tender but he was sound. The treatment is generally oral antibiotics (if you don’t catch it early enough sometimes you need IM antibiotics) and cold hosing.
Once I had an idea of the problem, I started searching for my SMZs. I usually have at least a starting dose on hand for those times when I have have an “after hours” problem. This time I came up empty handed.
At this point, I called my vet. I reviewed what I’d found, he confirmed that it was likely cellulitis and since I had no antibiotics on hand he offered to leave me the SMZs at his home office instead making an emergency call (and racking up the related fee). I felt much more comfortable starting the treatment that night even if it wasn’t until 10:30 p.m. Even better, my husband was close to the vet and was able to stop by and pick up the meds.
Tuesday I was pretty disappointed. I had hoped that the antibiotics and several rounds of cold hosing would help reduce the swelling. I turned him out for a bit to get him moving but by mid-afternoon, I hadn’t seen much of a change. Once again, because it involved his knee, I was worried.
A call to the vet calmed me down and gave me another treatment: exercise. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a horse with cellulitis so I had either forgotten that exercise would help, or had never known. Certainly, his knee looked so terrible that I wouldn’t have considered riding him without my vet’s recommendation. My vet explained that antibiotics alone are often not enough to bring down the swelling. He told me that exercise was very important to improve lymphatic drainage and that I needed to take him out and get his heart rate up. Way cool. Doctor’s orders are to take my horse out for a gallop! It worked like a charm. Freedom was still sound and his knee looked much better after I being ridden.
He continued to improve this week and his knee is almost back to normal. I told my husband that I had a prescription for daily rides that would probably be necessary for at least another week.
Doing a little research on cellulitis I found that a study conducted by the Ontario Veterinary College in Canada. Interestingly, in their study, they found that most cellulitis affected hind limbs and that Thoroughbreds were “significantly over-represented compared to any other breed.” I wonder what would make them more prone to those types of skin infections?