Urgent Care: Leg Swelling

A swollen leg is always reason for concern.

Swelling on your horse’s leg may be as simple as lower leg edema from standing in his stall to a bowed tendon to a serious infection. Look at the conditions surrounding this swelling to decide if it’s a veterinary emergency and to get an idea of the prognosis.

An acute swelling that’s warm and tender to the touch suggests a recent injury or a developing infection. With infection, the area may feel hot. Check your horse’s temperature. A fever suggests infection. If so, look carefully for a small puncture wound site or any area with drainage. 

An infection will require antibiotics, possibly a minor surgery under a local anesthetic to look for a foreign body in the area and definitely an update on your horse’s tetanus status. Luckily most wounds and infections will heal nicely if caught early and treated thoroughly. 

Sprains and strains can be another story. Technically, a sprain involves damage to a ligament—tough tissue that connects bones to bones—or a joint capsule. A strain is a tear of a muscle-tendon area. In real life, the terms get used interchangeably, and both represent a break in your horse’s work schedule. 

Cold soaking or an ice leg wrap can’t hurt no matter what. However, a cold hose works best as not only is the water always cold as it runs down the leg but the running water also has a mild massage action.

Rarely does a swollen leg indicate a fracture in the leg. These injuries are very painful and tend to be nonweight bearing on the affected leg. 

What happens next depends on your veterinarian’s exam. You may be looking at using wraps, poultices and pain medications judiciously to return your horse to the ranks of working equines. 

The mildest (and common) swollen leg is the senior horse who gets some edema in his lower legs from just standing around. You may hear this called “stocking up.” The swelling will “pit” if you poke it. It may be in all four legs, though it may be just the rear legs. These horses generally will “walk off” their edema if allowed out to a pasture or given light exercise daily. 

There are also long-term “old” swellings that a horse may have for years, such as a bog spavin, which is a soft swelling in the hock area caused by fluid build up in the joint. This doesn’t usually cause lameness and is generally related to poor conformation. Treatment, possibly including corticosteroids, may clear it up, but it often recurs. 

Bottom line.An acute or new swelling, especially if accompanied by heat and in just one leg, is a reason to call your veterinarian. Swelling associated with lameness (not just stiffness) is another reason to call your veterinarian. 

An older horse with some swelling in his lower limbs, or even a young horse who has been stall bound for a bit, is worth a wait and see. Walk your horse around, turn him out and check him again in a bit. Benign edema or stocking up should be improved. However, any swelling may benefit from cold hosing, making it always your first step. 

Article by Contributing Veterinary Editor Deb Eldredge DVM.

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