Honey for Treating Horse Wounds

Scottish researchers have some sweet news in the field of equine wound healing: Honey’s all the buzz in natural wound remedies, and according to recent research, it works with horses, too. Better yet, it’s not just the tried-and-true manuka honey that works, but a wide variety of honeys from different parts of the world.

Veterinarians have long recognized that manuka honey—which is native to Australia and New Zealand—as an effective wound treatment. But researchers now believe this pricey product isn’t the only kind of honey can kill bacteria found in horse wounds.

“As a scientist and equine surgeon, I am very excited by our findings (which) suggest that there are a number of other types of honey that are equally—if not more—effective (than manuka) in inhibiting the growth of bacteria in wounds,” said Patrick Pollock, DVM, PhD, of the Weipers Centre for Equine Welfare in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

Pollock and colleagues investigated the effects of 28 different honeys—the majority of which were purchased at a local supermarket—on infectious agents recovered from equine wounds. They first tested the honeys for the presence of infectious agents of their own. They then tested those considered “uncontaminated” in a laboratory on 10 different bacteria isolates from equine wounds.

As it turned out, most of the honeys—18 of them—were already contaminated with infectious agents, including Bacillus spp, Proteus spp, an unidentified Enterobacteriaceae organism, and an unidentified fungus, Pollock said. The other honeys—local varieties primarily from Scotland and North Africa, as well as some “medicinal” manuka honeys packaged as veterinary ointments—were all found to be effective in killing all 10 of the tested bacteria, he said. That list of bacteria even included stubborn pathogens such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

Interestingly, the “medicinal” honeys weren't necessarily the most effective, Pollock added. In fact, the best performance came from Scottish heather honey, which inhibited the growth of all 10 bacterial isolates at very low concentrations (ranging from only 2-6%).

“This is exciting for a number of reasons,” Pollock said. “Manuka honey is a finite resource and is only available in certain parts of the world, and it’s currently very expensive. Here in Glasgow we do a lot of work with working horses, donkeys, and mules in the developing world, and I am particularly hopeful that this research means that we could source local honey types across the globe for use in these hard-working animals which are commonly afflicted with wounds.”

But don't run to the supermarket and pick up a jar of honey to store in your barn’s pharmacy cabinet just yet, Pollock cautioned. The honey in your grocery store might very well be contaminated with bacteria or fungus already, he said, and it also shouldn’t be considered a cure-all by itself.

“The use of a honey dressing is only a small part of wound treatment,” he said. “It cannot make up for good quality wound care, and the key principles of wound management in horses should always be adhered to.” (Editor's Note: For more information on wound management, see Horse Wounds 101 on TheHorse.com.) 

In future research Pollock aims to determine what aspect of honey makes it effective in inhibiting bacterial grown and see what other ways it could improve wound healing. The team's current research was partially funded by honey wound dressing manufacturer Kruuse UK.

The study, "The antimicrobial activity of honey against common equine wound bacterial isolates," will appear in an upcoming issue of the Veterinary Journal

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.