Lymphangitis in Horses 101: Causes, Symptoms, and Recovery


Cellulitis is a bacterial infection that occurs below the skin. When that infection impairs the lymphatic system, it is referred to lymphangitis. Because the transport of lymph fluid occurs in just one direction, from the extremities toward the heart, lymph vessels are particularly susceptible to the effects of lymphangitis in horses.

Infection can cause an increase in lymphatic fluid, which can result in a backing up of the transport system, leading to swelling, inflammation, and pain. Though rarely fatal, this is a serious condition that must be treated rapidly and aggressively.

What Is Lymphangitis in Horses?

The lymphatic system transports lymph, an important immune system fluid, throughout the body. This fluid is like the plasma in blood and is responsible for removing cellular debris and waste products. The system is involved in both the immune response and maintaining fluid levels in the blood. Lymphangitis in horses occurs when this system becomes impaired, typically resulting in swelling of one or more limbs.

Lymphangitis in horses is far more likely to occur in larger breeds than in lighter ones. It is also more common in good feeders than in poor ones. When a horse’s activity level is decreased, without reducing its feed accordingly, it can also lead to this condition.

The swelling of lymphangitis in horses usually occurs suddenly, in one or more legs, and can be quite excessive. It is often accompanied by pain, elevated temperature, lack of appetite, and excessive sweating. It is more likely to occur in hind legs because they’re farther from the heart.

When lymphangitis in horses continues for a long time or recurs, it can lead to permanent scarring of the one-way valves that control lymph flow. This can result in permanent swelling, due to lymph vessel varicosity, and restricted movement.

What Causes Lymphangitis in Horses?

Lymphangitis in horses is usually the result of a bacterial or fungal infection. Sometimes the exact cause can’t be determined. This can happen when the micro-organism responsible is difficult to culture or the swelling occurs after the immune system has cleared the organism from the body.

This infection is most often the result of either a bug bite or minor skin wound. Either of these can allow the organism into the body, causing the immune response. When the body struggles to transport the lymph out of the extremities, swelling can occur.

Treatment Options Available for Lymphangitis in Horses

Because lymphangitis in horses can be difficult to trace to a specific cause, it is important to consult with a veterinarian as soon as possible when symptoms occur. This is necessary both to ensure the accuracy of the diagnosis and to make sure that the appropriate treatment is administered.

Consulting a vet may be an uncomfortable decision to make because there is sometimes the implication that the condition might be the result of neglectful horse care. But it is ultimately in the best interests of the horse and ensures the best possible outcome, to do so.

The specific treatment of lymphangitis in horses will depend on its cause. It generally includes the use of an antibiotic, or antifungal, that is chosen to target the specific organism responsible. Steroids, or non-steroidal medications, may be used to decrease pain and swelling. Hydrotherapy and physiotherapy may also be employed to reduce symptoms and discomfort.

The most difficult part of treatment can be getting a horse in pain to move. Unfortunately, this movement is vital to the resolution of fluid backup responsible for the swelling. An epidural can sometimes be employed to block pain and get the horse willing to cooperate with the physiotherapy.

Treatment for lymphangitis in horses is usually given until swelling resolves, though it will sometimes be continued to prevent recurrence. Careful, ongoing post-infection monitoring may be necessary because the limb may be susceptible to swelling due to residual damage to the lymphatic vessels

Swelling will usually resolve, in response to treatment, but the limb may never be the same afterward. Prognosis following treatment is usually excellent unless internal abscesses occur. When this complication happens, fatality can become a risk, but uncomplicated lymphangitis in horses is usually not fatal.

Prevention of Lymphangitis in Horses

Because overeating can lead to an increased susceptibility to developing lymphangitis in horses, it is important to be mindful of activity level when assessing the horse’s nutritional needs. Any time activity level decreases, for whatever reason, you should adjust the feeding volume accordingly.

  • This nutritional concern can be eliminated by ensuring that the horse is exercised daily. A wild horse can travel as much as 30 miles a day. If your pasture isn’t large enough to allow for this level of activity, include daily rides too. It is also important to maintain good hygiene practices. Keeping their skin, bedding and stall clean and dry can decrease the chance that you will have to deal with lymphangitis in horses.
  • Perform regular examinations for wounds and bug bites. Treat all wounds, even minor ones, as soon as you discover them. This treatment should include a topical antiseptic, to clean the wound, followed by the application of a barrier wound cream, to prevent infection from getting in.

Although most forms of lymphangitis in horses are not contagious, outbreaks do occasionally occur. While none of the steps listed here can guarantee that your horse will never suffer from lymphangitis, they can certainly make it less likely to occur.

Conclusion

Dealing with a sick horse can be difficult. Particularly when they display obvious signs of pain, injury, and distress. They can’t tell you what’s wrong, but it’s evident, from their behavior and symptoms, that something is very much so.

The best way to effectively deal with lymphangitis in horses is accurate diagnosis followed by rapid, aggressive treatment. Both processes require consulting with a veterinarian as soon as the symptoms are discovered and following their instructions precisely. This will increase the likelihood of complete recovery.

Image source: Pixabay

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