Scratches in Horses 101: Causes, Symptoms and Recovery

Scratches in horses, mud heel, mud fever, dew poisoning, greasy heel or pastern dermatitis are names for a variety of skin conditions that cause the same symptoms. These symptoms include very inflamed and itchy skin on the lower limbs, often around the pasterns and heels. The skin becomes so irritated that it often breaks open, oozes, scabs over and oozes again. The scabs are often a clay-like grey in color.

Horses with white legs, socks or stockings are more susceptible to getting scratches than horses of other colors. Just why this happens is unknown. Hind legs are often more affected than the forelegs. Horses and ponies with longer leg hair (called feathers), such as Shires, Friesians, Dale ponies or Clydesdales are also prone to scratches. Scratches in horses can happen in one or more legs.

What Are Scratches in Horses?

The owner usually does not know a horse has scratches until the sores and scabs appear. The itchy skin areas flake off like big sheets of dandruff. Underneath the skin is swollen, sometimes reddened or bleeding. Horses will scratch the affected areas so hard and so constantly trying to relive the itch that they often scratch themselves open.

If left untreated, the irritated skin goes hairless or forms granulomas or growths of bumpy skin. These growths are alarming, looking as if the horse has just gotten back from a trip to Chernobyl. Horses with bald spots or granulomas are difficult to sell and may not be allowed to compete in horse shows or other horse sports. In the worst cases of chronic scratches, horses and ponies will go permanently lame.

What Causes Scratches in Horses?

There are many causes of scratches in horses and ponies, from bacterial growths to fungal infections. However, all of these causes of scratches appear when the horse’s legs stand for a long time in wet conditions.

  • Early spring when mud is a constant presence is a prime time for harboring the microorganisms that lead to scratches.
  • Horses and ponies forced to live in wet stalls or pastures that are rarely cleaned will also fall victim or scratches and many other serious medical problems.

Treatment Options Available for Scratches in Horses

Fortunately, there are many treatments for this common ailment of horses and ponies. Place affected horses in clean, dry areas. Giving them medication and then letting them stand in their own filth or go back into the mud make the medications useless. Keep in mind that the itchiness and tenderness of the skin will make even the gentlest horse cranky. Be alert for signs of a horse about to kick – wringing the tail, cocking a hind leg or tossing the head.

  • Bathe the horse’s legs with an antibacterial soap, such as Bentadine.
  • Use a clean towel to dry the spots.
  • Pat the affected areas dry. Rubbing them will irritate the horse.
  • Clip the hair around the sore spots. This will ensure that treatments will go onto the affected skin and not get rubbed off by the hair.
  • Do not use a razor. Use an antibacterial spray or ointment on the sore areas.
  • Ideally a horse owner would use an ointment that has both antibacterial and antifungal properties. But if that is not available, try at least using an antibiotic ointment.

Specific Situations

If the horse has scabs, do not try to pull or scrape them off. This could lead to infection.

  • Place Corona ointment or petroleum jelly on the scabs, instead.
  • When the scabs are very soft, they can be removed. Dry scabs should not.
  • However, if the horse gets regularly turned out in a dry sandy pasture or lot, skip the ointment or petroleum jelly.
  • Dust and dirt from the footing will stick onto the ointment and irritate the skin.

If the horse is still bad after a few days of treatment or appears to be getting worse, contact a veterinarian right away. The vet can hopefully determine if the exact cause of the scratches.

  • The horse may need prescription anti-fungal creams with steroids.
  • The horse may also need a round of antibiotics given as pills or drenches.
  • Keep in mind that in many horse sports, horses are not allowed to compete with any trace of steroids in their system, even if the steroid is not given with a needle.

Prevention of Scratches in Horses

The main cause of scratches of horses is excess moisture and dirt or manure on the legs. In an ideal world, horses have their legs cleaned every day, every speck of mud is always removed, horses will stop rolling in mud and natural disasters like flooding never happen. Keeping a horse clean and dry all of the time is not going to happen. Just cleaning a horse’s stall out at least once a day, preferably twice, will go a long way to prevent scratches developing.

  • While regularly grooming and bathing a horse, do not forget about the horse’s brushes or any equipment that spends a long time on the legs, such as bandages or bell boots. These objects are dirt magnets. If not cleaned regularly, rouge bacteria will grow.
  • Be sure to regularly clean brushes, combs, bandages and bell boots. Use a different brush for infected legs so the brush does not accidentally spread infections to healthy legs. Never use the brushes of a horse with scratches on another horse or that animal will also come down with scratches.

To Sum It Up

The bad news about scratches in horses is that most horses will suffer from this skin malady at some point in their lives. The good news is that scratches are treatable, especially if caught in the early stages. Some horses may not even need a veterinary treatment, but constant treatment at home from their caretakers.

However, if any caring horse owner is unsure about how best to treat a horse with scratches, call a veterinarian right away.

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