HOW TO TREAT AN ABSCESS
This article is intended to help you understand what an abscess looks like and how to take proper aftercare to ensure a speedy recovery!
So, it’s time to feed, and as you’re performing your daily health evaluation checklist and you see a large lump that seems to have appeared overnight. This is most likely an abscess. Abscess can be called a goiter or boil are generally caused by a bacterial infection and dirt from a cut, puncture, bite or other skin injury. It can be from an internal infection, but generally they are caused from an external injury. Because abscesses grow fast, they cause the lump to become very itchy. This itch will cause your animal to rub it and possibly cause it to break open. If it’s already open and oozing, read the paragraph on Draining and Cleaning the Abscess.
NOTE: All injuries when discovered benefit from flushing and cleaning.
What does an Abscess look like?
Abscesses are usually very round in shape and resemble a ping pong ball under the skin. Once they start to develop, they seem to grow from the size of a pea to a golf ball over night! They are generally located on the head and neck area, but can develop anywhere there is skin! They will take 6-10 days to heal after they are drained and flushed out.
Here are some abscess examples.
What Causes the Lump? What’s Under the Skin?
The “ball” is filled with pus, blood and other body fluids. It’s basically like an oversized pimple. The pus color can be white to yellow to green. Infection that is yellow to green in color with a foul smell always indicates some type of infection. The ball can be watery to thick like lotion.
As the abscess grows, it will thin out the top layer of skin (like a pimple). It will “come to a head”. This illustration is an abscess in the early stages. As the ball grows in size it will get closer to the top of the skin. It’s at this point that the skin can be cut (lanced) to allow the infected fluid out.
For Goats and Sheep, there is an infection that you must consider called Caseous Lymphadenitis (CL). The pus of CL has the consistency of white cream cheese (sorry if I ruined your love for cream cheese!). It will be thick and look completely different from the general abscess pus. If this is the case, collect a sample for the vet to send to the lab. CL is detrimental to breeding and dairy projects as it is highly contagious. The CL abscess can in multiple locations on goats and lambs.
Once an abscess is discovered, perform the Daily Health Assessment Chart. This will help identify your health situation and it will also be extremely helpful to your adviser, breeder or veterinarian.
- Temperature – Take and Record the temperature.
- Normal – If the temperature is normal, this may indicate that the abscess is caused by a skin injury and not a whole body infection or disease. If there is a temperature, there may be an infection that is causing the abscess. If the temperature is high and the abscess has broken open, be certain to collect a pus sample for your vet to examine in the lab. Prescription medications may be in order and your vet will be the best person to make that call.
- To Collect a Pus Sample – Use a small plastic baggie or something similar to safely contain the sample. Wash your hands thoroughly with warm soap and water paying close attention to your fingernail area.
- Do their eyes and nose look normal?
- Are they eating normally?
- Are they walking and acting normal?
- Are there any other sick signs? Coughing? Panting? Lethargic?
Decide – Who will lance, flush and treat the abscess?
- Do you have the experience to lance and treat the abscess?
- Do you have an experienced advisor or showman who will help?
- Call a vet if you feel that this is not for you. Even if the abscess is treated by your veterinarian, you’ll need to be ready for the aftercare to ensure that it doesn’t get re-infected. Expect that it will take 6-7 days of aftercare. It’s not a one day effort!
If you choose to call for help, be sure to share the results of your health assessment.
The Ripe Abscess – Abscesses are treatable and heal well once they are cleaned out and given an over-the-counter antibiotic. The abscess is ready to be cleaned out once the abscess is “ripe”. Ripeness is when the top layer of skin has thinned out due to the pressure of the growing pus cavity. When it’s close to being ripe, the top of the abscess skin will be shiny, red and almost hairless. Sometimes you’ll see a weak spot in the skin that is beginning to ooze out. Your animal may be scratching this area because of the building pressure, while others may be sensitive to the touch.
This picture was taken 24 hours before the abscess was lanced open. See how the top is red and irritated? Growing abscesses are itching and this pig was beginning to rub it in the pen. Even the hair was thin or missing. This is easier to see on goats and lambs by the absence of hair or wool. It looks like a little bald spot.
It is preferred to drain an abscess vs letting it burst on its own. The main reason is to control where the pus and fluids are spread. You do not want it all over the pen and you want to be able to disinfect the cavity, especially if it is contagious. If you find that the abscess has opened, wipe down the pen with paper towels, bleach and water (just in case it’s contagious).
Quarantine – Separate the infected animal from other pen mates. Make sure that they cannot touch each other! Clean out all bedding and put new bedding down in both pens. Separation helps with the spread of infection if it happens to be contagious and it allows the animal to recover safely from the pen mates. It will require daily work to keep things clean, but it is necessary and worthwhile.
Opening the Abscess
With nitrile or latex gloves and paper towels nearby perform the following steps;
- Shave any Hair – For Goats and Sheep – shave wool or hair from the area. Pigs are ok as is.
- Disinfect the skin area – Use soap and water or betadine scrub to remove any dirt or debris.
- Lance the Abscess – Lancing is performed by cutting a straight line or a T or X shaped opening on the head or the lowest point of the abscess. The lowest point is best for drainage as it lets gravity help. Lancing can be performed using a disinfected scalpel or new xacto knife. Do not use a pocket knife or other thick blade. The finer sharp blades will make a cleaner cut that will heal better. A small ¼” incision is generally sufficient to drain the fluids. If you have not lanced an abscess before, it is advisable to have an experienced breeder, showman or vet to do the honors. Bluntly put, it’s a gross and messy job because of the amounts of pus, blood, nasty smell and possibly a moving animal! Most people are grossed out by the process. Because a pig cannot be easily contained, the lancing step needs to be quickly completed. Distracting the pig with food is a good trick. Goats and Sheep should be secured on a grooming stand with a helper to hold the animal.
- Drain & Clean – Once the opening has been created, gently press to get the pocket clear out as much of the pus and fluids as possible into a paper towel and throw away in a plastic bag. Keep pressing to get out as much as you can. Generally once the fluid turns from pus to blood, it’s an indication that most of the pus has been removed. The drainage is general thick and possibly lumpy, so pressing and wiping is necessary.
Cleaning & Flushing
Using a 50/50 blend of betadine & water, fill and flush the cavity several times using a syringe (without a needle). Repeat 2 times a day for 2-3 days. Be careful to keep the area clean and open for natural drainage. By day 3, the skin may have tightened up and wiping down with a clean cotton pad and betadine/water solution should be sufficient. All skin injuries can benefit from this process of cleaning and flushing.
Drainage – It’s important to keep the abscess open so that drainage can occur. If the wound closes too soon, the infection can start growing again.
Using an antibiotic ointment, coat the skin area to help prevent further infection, Apply daily after the flushing of the cavity. Throw away gloves used to prevent spreading of any potential disease.
- Fly Control – If it’s fly season, there are roll-on or fly ointments that can be easily applied to the area around the wound to keep the flies away.
- Antibiotics – Give 2-3 cc of a penicillin-G or LA-200 shot once a day for 3 days.
- Clean Bedding & Isolation – After initial abscess cleaning, ensure that new bedding is in place. If the abscess continues to drain, change the bedding and keep the animal isolated for 10 days. A $6 bag of shavings each day is a cheap way to ensure that the drainage does not cause more problems.
Daily Cavity Maintenance
- Clean – Each day, clean and disinfect the area around the wound area using the 50/50 Betadine/Water mix and clean cotton pads. Remove any dirt or residual ointment.
- Flush – Repeat the process of flushing the cavity with 50/50 Betadine mixture and apply fresh antibiotic ointment when completed. Apply fresh fly control if necessary.
- Evaluate the pen for any Sharp wires or splintered wood. Wood can cause slivers and wire can puncture as the animal rubs against the fencing.
- Bedding – Keeping your project on clean, fresh bedding goes a long way in keeping them healthy. Spending a little more to have good bedding is worth the potential health issues.
It’s never fun to have a sick animal, but with the right information, you can treat and manage the issues that occur. Your vet and advisor will appreciate your efforts to help the healing process. Because your project lives in a dirty environment, it’s important to clean all wounds daily to prevent re-infection.
Every year it’s a lesson and we’re here to help you grow your livestock knowledge through these challenging situations!
- Nitrile or Latex Gloves
- Paper Towels
- Plastic Bags for trash disposal
- Scalpel or New Xacto Knife
- New Bedding
- Fly Ointment
- Betadine Solution
- Cotton Squares
- Penn-G or LA200 Antibiotic
- Neosporin or Antibiotic Ointment