Scratches in horses

Scratches, also known as mud fever, will present seasonal challenges for some Michigan horse owners.

Scratches, also known as mud fever or greasy heel, can affect horses that are housed in wet, muddy environments.
Scratches, also known as mud fever or greasy heel, can affect horses that are housed in wet, muddy environments.

While spring may officially be a few weeks off, it’s never too early to think about the potential issues that come with managing Michigan horses when March and April roll around. When the temperatures do finally warm up this year there will be large amounts of mud to deal with thanks to the large amount of snow we’ve had. With muddy, wet conditions, Michigan State University Extension encourages owners to watch for scratches on their horses legs and feet.

Found on the lower limbs of horses kept in moist environments, scratches is also known as mud fever or greasy heel. It is likely that the excessive moisture causes the skin to be compromised, as with other conditions such as rain rot. It is likely that the weakened skin – combined with unsanitary conditions allows for the entry of viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites – lead to the onset of scratches and is not caused by a specific organism, but rather is a set of symptoms. These symptoms include flaky, irritated and inflamed skin often with chronic, oozing scabs present.

Treatment of scratches involves keeping the horses legs as clean and dry as possible. Clipping the hair around the infected area and carefully washing with an antibacterial soap is effective, but scabs may be painful so always use caution when working around the horse’s feet and legs. An antibiotic ointment or spray may also assist in healing, however, some heavy creams may repel moisture and attract dirt, further compounding the problem. MSU Horse Teaching and Research Center Manager Paula Hitzler suggests using a mixture of Desitin and betadine. For really bad sratches, add dexamethazone to the salve. She also suggests using Panalog. In very serious cases that do not respond to treatment, a veterinarian should be consulted because oral antibiotics or other forms of treatment may be may be required.

As with many other skin conditions in horses, those with white legs seem more susceptible to scratches, as do those with feathers on the lower limbs. Some horses just seem to be more prone to scratches as well, but ultimately, a clean and dry environment will keep it from reoccurring.

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