How to Rid Your Horse of Mud Fever
By Canadian Horse Journal
Q - What is the best treatment plan for mud fever, and can I prevent it from recurring annually in certain horses?
A - Mud fever, also known as scratches, pastern dermatitis, and greasy heel, is a common equine skin disease affecting the lower limbs, particularly the back of the pasterns and the bulbs of the heels. The ailment is most prevalent during the fall, winter, and early spring months, when horses are more likely to spend prolonged periods of time standing in wet, muddy conditions where the bacteria and fungi that cause mud fever thrive.
Photo (above): Mud fever is a skin condition that affects the lower legs and causes crusty sores to form in the areas around the horse’s pasterns, heels, and fetlocks. Photo: Pam MacKenzie
Normally, the skin acts as a protective barrier against such harmful micro-organisms, but increased exposure to moisture can compromise the skin’s integrity until a point of entry becomes available by means of an abrasion or other skin damage. Horses with white legs or pink skin may be more prone to developing mud fever, as are those with particularly hairy feathers that trap moisture and dirt against the skin.
Skin lesions, exuding fluids which dry to form scabs, are the most characteristic symptom of mud fever. These painful, crusty sores can be accompanied by mild inflammation. Severe cases of mud fever may present with the additional symptoms of extreme swelling and heat in the affected leg, severe skin sloughing, and lameness. In severe cases, it is important to consult with your veterinarian.
Successful treatment for mud fever begins with moving the horse to a clean, dry environment, even if this requires temporary confinement to a stall. Once this has been achieved, the following steps should be taken:
1. Carefully clip the hair away from the affected area to make cleaning easier and to render the area less hospitable to bacteria.
2. Wash the area thoroughly but gently with warm water and an antibacterial cleanser. Avoid cold water and vigorous scrubbing, both of which will further irritate the skin. If the crusts are dried and hard, try to soak them off rather than picking at them. Tough scabs can also be softened prior to washing with a generous layer of antibacterial ointment or cream.
3. Thoroughly dry the area with a clean towel, blotting as opposed to rubbing so as to avoid causing the horse discomfort and damaging the skin further.
4. Apply liberal amounts of an antibacterial ointment or cream at least once daily.
This process may need to be repeated several times during the recovery period, which can take many weeks, but try to refrain from washing the area too often as the additional moisture will only perpetuate the problem. Instead, allow any accumulated mud to dry and then gently brush away.
The above treatment plan may be adequate for mild to moderate cases of mud fever, but severe cases will almost certainly require treatment with topical and/or oral antibiotics from a veterinarian.
The best way to prevent mud fever is to minimize exposure to wet, muddy conditions, which can be achieved through good paddock management or stabling the horse at night on clean, dry bedding so skin has a chance to dry out. All horses should have their legs checked during routine grooming for abrasions and early signs of mud fever. Horses that are prone to mud fever may benefit from having their legs pre-emptively clipped and from application of a barrier cream, such as zinc, petroleum jelly, or castor oil, prior to turnout or exercise so long as the legs are clean and dry.
This article is for information purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional veterinary advice. No liability will accrue to the publisher or author of the article in the event that a user suffers loss as a result of reliance upon this information.
This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.
Main article photo: Wet, muddy conditions can weaken the integrity of the horse’s skin and make it more susceptible to abrasions through which harmful micro-organisms can enter the horse’s body and cause the infection known as mud fever. Photo: Edward Stojakovic/Flickr