The Stages Of Wound Healing In Horses
While horse owners hope their horses never suffer a wound, it’s still important to be aware of the different stages of wound healing. By knowing what to look for during each stage, owners can provide appropriate care for their horses and help them heal quickly if a wound does occur.
In this article, we discuss the different stages of wound healing and what to should look for and consider during each stage. We also supply information on products to promote fast recovery, like light therapy and ointments.
Types of Wounds
There are three main types of horse wounds: superficial, partial thickness, and full thickness.
Superficial wounds are the least severe and only affect the top layer of skin. An example of a superficial wound is a minor cut or scrape.
Partial-thickness wounds are more serious and extend into the second layer of skin. A horse with a partial thickness wound may have a blister or an open sore.
Full-thickness wounds are the most severe and extend all the way through the skin and into the underlying tissue. A horse with a full-thickness injury may have a large open wound or a deep laceration that needs sutures.
Many equine wounds are caused by sharp objects in the pasture or barn, falls, burns, or aggressive encounters with other horses or animals.
What to Do When You Notice a Wound
When a wound occurs, the first thing you should do is assess its severity and decide whether to treat it at home or contact the vet.
In severe cases, such as when a wound is large, deep or bleeding profusely, it’s best to contact your veterinarian immediately. Stopping heavy bleeding is also an essential first step. To do so, apply pressure to the wound with a clean cloth.
If the wound is small and superficial, you may be able to treat it at home. However, we recommend consulting a vet when treating any injury, as infection can become a serious problem.
Treating a Wound
Prompt treatment is preferable for any wound. We recommend treating the horse’s injury as soon as possible, whether you seek veterinary care or provide first aid at home.
One of the most important things you can do for a wound is clean it properly. If you don’t clean a wound thoroughly, an infection can set in and make the horse sick.
Whether you’re treating the wound yourself or preparing for the vet’s visit, you can use clean water or a gentle saline solution to rinse out any debris.
Bandaging and/or Stitching
Equine wounds don’t always require bandaging. In fact, many wounds are left unbandaged, except for lower leg wounds. The bandage is primarily placed on the leg when a wound occurs beneath the elbow. The dressing is for protection and to prevent disturbance due to movement.
Bandage changes should happen at least once per day.
Stitching only occurs in some circumstances as well. Suturing a horse’s wound is a delicate process that must be performed by a professional. However, when the skin edges are sutured close together, the horse typically heals more quickly and with less scarring.
Please remember that bandaged and sutured wounds can still develop infections and should be watched closely as they heal.
Once the horse’s wound is clean and cared for, it is crucial to closely monitor the injury for signs of infection. Vets typically prescribe antibiotics for suspected infections and sometimes to prevent infection from developing in the first place.
Skin grafting is sometimes necessary for deep wounds that can’t be closed with sutures. Grafting means taking skin from another area of the horse’s body, usually the chest or neck, and attaching it to the wounded area.
It sounds painful but may be the best course of action for some complicated wounds.
Remember, horses need up-to-date vaccinations, including tetanus, in case of unexpected situations and injuries. Wounded horses may also need a tetanus booster.
Wound Healing Products
A number of products can help speed up the healing process and reduce the risk of infection, including:
Laser Pens or Handheld Lasers
Laser pens and other handheld lasers are popular for promoting healing when it comes to open wounds. Light therapy with a laser can effectively stimulate new tissue growth while reducing inflammation to ease a horse’s pain. See our article on understanding PEMF therapy.
Many horse owners choose light therapy as a non-invasive method for speeding recovery.
Ointments are another standard treatment product for treating wounds. Most vets recommend ointments to keep injuries sterile and moisturized, which accelerates healing and aids in preventing excessive granulation tissue.
Consult your veterinarian before using ointments. The vet can help determine which product is best for the horse’s particular situation. They can also guide caretakers on how to apply the product correctly.
The Wound Healing Process
There are four stages of the wound healing process.
During each stage of the healing process, the wound looks slightly different, so it can help to look at horse wound healing stages pictures and compare them to your horse’s injury.
The Swelling Stage
The first stage of wound healing is inflammation, and it starts almost immediately after the wound is sustained as the equine body begins to repair the damage.
During the inflammatory stage, the blood flow to the area lessens as the vessels contract and clots form.
The inflammatory phase commonly causes discomfort for the horse, so it’s essential to be aware of any signs of distress. Icing and anti-inflammatory medications may relieve pain at this point of the injury.
This inflammatory phase initiates the debridement stage when white blood cells move into the wound for cleanup.
The Debridement Stage
During the second phase of wound recovery, the body thoroughly cleans the wound, eliminating bacteria and dead tissue. The horse’s immune system kicks into gear, and platelets, fibrin and white blood cells inundate the site.
During this stage, owners may notice some pus develop, but it’s not always cause for alarm. While pus can signal infection, it can also be a normal part of the healing process. That said, if you notice pus, redness or swelling, it’s generally best to contact the vet for advice.
It may be helpful to use an ointment during this phase to keep the wound moist and sanitary while the cells do their work.
The Repair Stage
The third stage of wound healing in horses is called epithelialization, also known as the repair stage. This stage of healing is when the body begins producing granulation tissue, bringing new blood vessels and fibroblasts into the wound.
Granulation tissue is usually pink or red in colour and is very fragile. It works as a bridge for new skin cells while sealing off underlying tissues to reduce the chances of infection.
You may notice a scab beginning to form as the healing wound undergoes this penultimate repair phase. It’s also during this phase that excessive granulation tissue, known as proud flesh, can become a problem. It’s not always possible to avoid this issue, but bandaging a wound securely or keeping the site well-conditioned may help. If it can’t be avoided, a vet may remove it.
The Maturation Stage
The fourth and final stage of wound healing is maturation. This is when the body completes its work at repairing the damage caused by the wound.
New skin finally forms over the granulation tissue, and it should begin to look more like the surrounding skin. Although, as the wound contracts, a scar may develop.
Wound contraction can last for months, so this phase is a lengthy one. After its completion, the horse is fully healed.
Why Does Granulation Tissue Cause Proud Flesh?
A common question about wound healing is why the granulation process sometimes causes proud flesh, and the answer is relatively simple. It is merely an overgrowth of the necessary tissue.
The abnormality of healing is an unwanted development because too much of the tissue can cause problems, preventing skin from covering the wound, making movement difficult and leading to infection.
Most vets treat this problem with removal, bandaging & leg wraps, and antibiotics.
Does Proud Flesh Have Blood Vessels?
Proud flesh is delicate and highly vascularized, even more so than healthy tissue. As such, proud flesh is more susceptible to infection and bleeds heavily when disturbed or removed. However, it does not have nerve endings, so it shouldn’t cause the horse any pain.
A Return to Full Health
While a wound may slow your horse down temporarily, there’s no need to despair.
With appropriate attention and plenty of healing time, most wounded horses mend fairly quickly and typically continue their active lives in short order, returning to the pasture, trail or show ring.