This is Snowdrift! My buddy Lord Nelson asked me to help him out with this post to the “Holy Hoofprints” blog. As one of the fastest Horse Hero mares in the herd at the Rutgers Equine Science Center, he knew that I’d be able to write this in a jiffy! Here goes! Read through it and check out the video of me running at almost top-speed on the treadmill!
With this fickle fall weather and Halloween creeping up soon, I wanted to quickly talk to you about a scary skin infection that is commonly known as “scratches”. I know horses that have had scratches before, and it is very unpleasant for us if not managed correctly!
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term scratches, you may have heard it called “grassy heel” or “mud fever”. These are all the same. If you have ever had the veterinarian out for this infection, they may have called it “pastern dermatitis/folliculitis.” Whatever name you are familiar with, it is all the same condition!
I mentioned earlier that the fall weather made this post appropriate because of all the rain and mud that is typical this time of the year. Extremely wet and muddy situations can cause scratches to develop. This is because the natural protective layer of the skin is penetrated by constant moisture. When I am in a field that is not only wet, but also rather muddy, this lack of protection on the sensitive parts of my legs is now prone to invasion by various fungi and bacteria. Even a speed racer like me cannot out-run raindrops!
However, wet fields are not the only source of persistent moisture; be careful if your horse is receiving multiple baths a day or standing for long periods of time in wet bedding like straw. Heavy draft breeds are also more prone to this condition as they have thick feathers around the ankles and their weight can cause them to sink further into mud and damp ground. That being said, any horse can get this condition, and most do!
Now that you are aware of what factors raise a horse’s risk for scratches, let me tell you what signs indicate the onset. When you feel your horse’s legs during a normal grooming routine, pay special attention to the backs of the ankles and heels. This is where scratches are most likely to appear first. If you notice small crusty scabs or ulcerations, it may be the beginning of the condition. If you miss a day of leg checks or the first signs of scratches, when the condition is further along, it may cause hair loss, larger scabs, and sores on the skin that ooze a yellow serum. If scratches remain untreated, it can be extremely painful to the horse as open sores may become infected. Once a horse’s scratches get to this point, it is important to contact your vet right away for a more aggressive treatment plan. This may seem scary, but don’t be frightened! Now that you recognize the signs, here’s what you can do on your own to stop the earlier stages of scratches in their tracks!
The first thing to do if your horse is presenting with the signs of scratches is remove him/her from the wet environment. If this isn’t possible, take care to clean and dry the affected areas. If you can trim around the scratches, remove long hairs. Do not shave the legs after the scratches have onset in order not too accidently clip or irritate the scabs. Then you can wash the legs thoroughly (no more than once a day!) with an antibacterial soap like Betadine. Be careful when you wash the legs; the sting from Betadine can be painful on the sores! We don’t want to kick or wiggle in the wash stall, but we may try to get outta there as quickly as possible!
While washing, do not pick at any scabs that are present. If they are soft and slide off easily, it is okay to remove them, but picking is painful and will further irritate the skin, which could lead to more kicking and wiggling!
After washing, dry, dry, dry the legs! Once thoroughly towel-dried, you can then apply an ointment to the skin to create a barrier against moisture. There are many different products you can use. Here are a few suggestions!
- Mix Desitin and Furazone creams – my owner personally likes is a combination of Desitin and Furazone creams; Desitin to make the water slide off and Furazone to treat the infection.
- Petroleum jelly – this option might be easiest to use. Petroleum jelly or Corona ointment will create a barrier against water.
FYI – If you plan to return your horse to either a muddy or dry-dirt environment, be careful with the use of an ointment/cream. It may attract dirt back to the skin.
If your horse’s scratches are not getting better despite your best efforts, or it has become worse and is creating significant heat, filling, or lameness, call the veterinarian immediately! These signs may indicate that the sores are infected and will need the attention of a vet as treatment with antibiotics and medication may be necessary.
Before I run off to my next task for today, I’ll leave you with a bit of advice on how to prevent scratches and a few reminders. While you can’t control the weather and the amount of mud in the fields, you can make sure your horse’s legs are kept clean and dry them well after every bath. You can also keep your horse’s feathers and hair behind the pastern trimmed down to prevent clinging to mud. Another important tip is to not share brushes between a horse who is infected and one who isn’t. The infection can be spread on grooming tools, so make sure to clean your brushes frequently and use different sets between affected and unaffected legs! If your horse gets scratches suddenly or despite your best efforts you are unable to prevent it, do not worry! Just make sure to care for the legs daily as discussed and do not hesitate to call your vet if you feel the infection has progressed too far. Most cases of scratches are identified very early and are easily managed!
Here’s that VIDEO I promised you!
Catch you later!