Saddle sores are ubiquitous in the real world (no parenthesis here..). Several factors conspire to make this so. There are the obvious long working hours that many burros and donkeys endure. Sometimes it is the result of disinterest in humane care by the owner. Sometimes it comes from the brutal necessity of poverty and misfortune. I remember a man in Guatemala who brought us his thin pack animal, which had multiple lesions on its withers and spine. He was asking for help and was very concerned by his horse’s condition. When asked if he could rest it to allow healing, he looked dejected and said that his wife was sick and he had sold the tin roof from his house to pay for her medications. With the rainy season coming he was cutting fire wood for people in hopes of purchasing something to cover their shelter again. He had to pack the wood that he cut every day to do this. In fact, he was carrying, on his own back, a load that was almost as big as the one on his scrawny horse. He was ragged and did not look well himself. All we could do was to clean the wounds, leave him with some ointment, and take one of our sleeping mats and make a solid pad for the packsaddle. That was years ago, and I can still see the man’s sad, weathered face, trump line tight across his forehead, and his poor companion as they staggered off under their loads to a hard and unsure future.
While the problem of harness sores has been recognized by many, and the awareness has led to some very successful prevention programs (see the presentation http://donkeywelfaresymposium.homestead.com/Donkey-Problems---Projects.html), there is little good data on optimal treatment strategies. Some lesions, such as the one pictured, seem to respond to rest and cleanliness, though that requires good owner compliance and monitoring which may not always be available. Others, that have become very chronic, develop a pocket or “false bursa” between the skin and the tissue covering the vertebrae of the withers. These can require surgery, which is difficult under field conditions and the general lack of tissue that one finds on the backs of many underweight working animals. The removal tissue, even if infected and damaged, makes rest essential. As one can see from my story above, this is not always an easy decision. So at what point should one consider surgery? What is the best dressing to use? Are there other treatments that can be beneficial? Other than a study back in the 90’s showing that honey was beneficial in promoting resolution of sores in pack horses in Mexico, little has been published in the veterinary literature. This is a big problem requiring serious investigation and assessment of treatments.