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Thought to be a guaranteed death sentence, if caught early enough and treated diligently, canker is treatable and curable. When Rosie was diagnosed with canker in all four hooves, only one thing saved her life: compassion.
The beautiful white Morgan-Percheron was part of a beloved team of horses owned by David F. Cressman of Ironton Livery and Coach, a specialty horse-drawn carriage service in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She and her striking lookalike sister, Lisa, provided elegant carriage rides to many brides whose dream was to be Cinderella for a day.
When Cressman died without leaving provisions for his horses, the livery lost its driving force. The eight horses who once offered a wonderful day ride through the heart of the community were now languishing in their stalls with an unknown future. Then, a special friend stepped in to help.
Though there are no glass slippers or handsome princes in Rosie’s story, hers does have a few horse shoes, a whole team of “fairy godmothers” and a very happy ending.
Cressman was a mentor to Karen Schell, a sales manager for Mane ‘n Tails horse products. Schell’s passion for horses exudes in both her career and her hobby as a carriage driver. Cressman taught and encouraged her to drive and she came to the rescue when his horses needed a new future.
While helping to place most of Cressman’s fleet in new homes, Schell also took on the role of fairy godmother to Rosie, putting together an incredible team of vets, neighbors, farriers and friends to help Rosie overcome the debilitating and often fatal disease of hoof canker.
Canker is a fairly rare and mysterious infection that affects the frog, heel and underlying structures of the hoof. It is generally described as a degenerative dermatitis whereby the lamella becomes swollen, soft and spongy, resembling rotten cauliflower. The bacteria associated with canker cause abnormal keratin production, or overgrowth of the horn. Left untreated, the disease underruns the entire sole and can even travel up underneath the walls.
Due to the difficulty and length of time taken to treat canker, the disease is generally considered incurable, a death sentence. However, if the disease is discovered before the foot has suffered extensive damage, the prognosis is favorable and curable.
Because canker was present in all four hooves, Rosie’s case was severe. Due to the fact that canker infected the very inner parts of her hooves, recovery would take several long months.
Knowing that the cost of Rosie’s surgery and recovery would become a deal breaker to successfully treating her, Schell found a good friend who was kind enough to donate whatever was necessary to help save her.
With Rosie, time was of the essence. With instincts on full-throttle, Schell was taking in details and nuances of Rosie’s condition, at the same time shouldering the responsibility of finding new homes for all of Cressman’s horses. With Rosie in such serious condition, Schell first consulted her vet, Dr. Edgar Balliet, who brought in Dr. Randy Bimes of Quakertown Veterinary clinic, and who has had much success treating horses with canker.
“Canker can be treated very successfully in many cases if you have the support of the people caring for the horse and the funds to do so,” says Dr. Bimes. “It can be expensive and time consuming, but the success rate is high if you have the right people involved who understand the importance of post-op care.”
Rosie began her healing journey with a trip to Quakertown Veterinary clinic in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. Surgical removal of the diseased material and cankerous growth needed to be performed. Drs. Bimes and Balliet placed her under general anesthesia and carefully debrided the affected tissue, being careful not to draw blood and drive the infection deeper into the tissue. Systemically, there is no medicine that will cure canker if superficial debridement is not performed.
With surgery over, the real work began. Rosie spent 21 days at the hospital before being taken home to Schell’s farm where the rest of her team pulled together to nurse her back to health for more than two months.
“Success or failure has very little to do with the initial surgery and a whole lot to do with how the after care and minor follow-up surgeries go,” says Bimes. “The post-op care can be long, time consuming and frustrating. It takes a real team effort and the appropriate facility to manage the recovery.”
LONG, SLOW REHAB
Schell’s farrier, Eric Frick, spent many hours helping and teaching Rosie’s nursing team how to pick up her hooves safely. Neighbors Wendy and Wayne Walls stopped in every day to help with her care. Treatment had to be applied, packed on and bandaged firmly to each hoof, several times a day.
Rosie’s post-op protocol began with a methodical antiseptic cleaning program. Emphasis was placed on keeping the surgical wound clean and dry until the defect began to cornify. As a knowledgeable product specialist within her company, Schell used Mane ‘n Tail’s Pro-Tect topical antimicrobial spray as her first line of defense. Pro-Tect is used to kill a wide range of microorganisms including bacteria, yeast, mold, fungi and viruses. After treating the infection, Schell applied No Thrush to help absorb and dry the excess moisture in the hoof and Keratex Hoof Hardener to help harden the hoof tissue and make it resistant to softening and weakening in wet conditions.
To aid Rosie’s own natural renewal process, she was given Standard Process ’s Equine Immune Support to encourage an optimal immune response and Stemtech’s StemEquine Advanced Formula, an all-natural stem cell enhancer whose primary role is to maintain and repair tissue, an important aspect in maintaining health.
“It took a lot of due diligence to help Rosie recover,” says Schell. “Her stall had to be kept clean and dry and as sterile as possible. It took a lot of hard work.”
Optimum body health was important to healing, says Schell. A good diet, lots of movement and a positive state of mind are all important. While working full time and caring for her own horses, Schell made sure Rosie was cared for, groomed and pampered. She used Dr. Pat Bona’s cross fiber grooming technique to help Rosie feel more comfortable and to keep her muscles and joints supple.
The multi-faceted approach halted the more minor cases of canker in Rosie’s hind feet. Unfortunately, the severe canker in her front feet was resistant. Dr. Bimes had to sedate her on the farm and performed several debridements during her recovery.
RECOGNIZING SYMPTOMS OF CANKER
Early stages of canker are often mistaken for thrush that simply won't go away. The frog is often undermined with the horny frog covering the bulk of the disease. The affected tissue will bleed easily when abraded and may be extremely painful when touched.
* Canker has a very foul smell and secretes a lot of pus from the affected areas.
* Horses will often stamp their feet due to the discomfort.
* Fragments of crusted-over hoof horn grow excessively at the back of the frog.
* In extreme cases, as the canker takes hold, a cauliflower-like growth will appear in the affected areas of frog and heel.
* By this stage, horses will often also have swollen fetlocks and be reluctant to stand or move on their feet.
There is no answer as to why Rosie developed canker. Because the disease involves a very strict anaerobic process, and seems to have multi-factorial pathogenesis, the true cause of canker is unknown. It is widely thought of as an external infection but horses with systemic or constitutional upset are more susceptible. While it isn’t breed specific, canker seems to occur more frequently in Drafts.
Speculation suggests that horses kept in a wet environment or moist unhygienic conditions may be more susceptible, but most vets agree that canker is not prejudicial. Farms with the best stable management, as well as those with the worst, can have horses with canker, suggesting that the horse’s individual immune system and health history are major factors. In Rosie’s case, she was stalled in the same conditions as seven other horses on the farm yet was the only one to develop canker.
Thanks to her fairy godmother, Karen Schell, and her team of friends, neighbors, farriers and doctors (plus one generous anonymous donor), Rosie is living happily ever after. She lives the princess lifestyle with her sister, Lisa, on a beautiful 17-acre private estate with a luxury barn palace. Her carriage won’t be turning into a pumpkin any time soon.
Carolyn Crew is Production Manager and Social Media Contact for Holistic Horse. She has more than 20 years of sales, marketing and design experience ranging from television, print, web and interior design. She is a Parelli level 3 student and hopes to educate more readers about the horse-human relationship and the spiritual, mental and emotional sides of their horses.
Photos courtesy of Karen Schell