When and why we use a poultice

In our latest veterinary feature from Sussex Equine Hospital, vet Dr Chris Baldwin BVetMed(hons) MRCVS of  Sussex Equine Hospital, based at Ashington  explains when and why poultices should be used on equines.

Dr Chris Baldwin

Traditionally a poultice was a soft moist mass, placed between pieces of thin material, (like linen or muslin) and applied to an area to create a hot pack with the aim to sooth pain or draw infection.

Most commonly with horses, bran was used as this was readily available in the stable yard. Now we mostly use pre-prepared, commercially produced poultices, impregnated with substances that have a drawing action and these can be applied hot, cold or dry.

Other substances that can be used as a poultice to draw infection are Epsom salts or sugardine – a mix of sugar and iodine.

Poultices can be used in a variety of ways in the management of horse wounds and injuries. The most common use is probably for the treatment of foot abscesses where the dressing is applied to draw the pus out of the foot.

Sometimes if the area of infection is deep in the hoof, the poultice can be used to soften the sole and draw the pus closer to the surface to enable it to then be pared to drain.

Once the abscess is open, the poultice can continue to be used to draw the infection out and also keep the area clean.

Poultices can also be used on wounds; usually only initially for the first day or so to draw out infection. Dirty open lacerations could be poulticed to try and draw the contamination to the surface before changing to a more appropriate ongoing wound dressing for healing.

Puncture wounds are often poulticed to draw deeper infection to the surface, the wet dressing also keeps the small surface wound open (if it dries and closes up, bacteria and contamination can become trapped inside). However, this type of wet dressing should not be used for too long as it can start to delay healing and promote the proliferation of skin bacteria.

Sometimes an abscess can develop under the skin with no apparent cause, this might be because the infection has come from a prickle, thorn or puncture wound that has healed over, resulting in the trapped bacteria developing into an abscess some time later.

In these cases, a poultice can be useful to soften the skin and draw the pus to encourage the abscess to burst or make it easier to lance.

Used appropriately, poultices are a very useful component of our horse first aid kit. If you are unsure if a poultice is appropriate to be used in a particular situation with your horse, then you should discuss the situation with your own vet.

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