Understanding and Treating Scratches in Horses

Rain may bring spring flowers, but it can also lead to skin problems such as scratches. "Scratches" refers to a common skin condition in horses that can affect the heel, the back of the pastern, the fetlock, and occasionally the cannon bone. Veterinarians may refer to it as pastern dermatitis or pastern folliculitis. It is also known as "mud fever", "dew poisoning", "greasy heel" or "cracked heels".

No matter the name, this mixed bacterial, often fungal, and sometimes parasitic skin condition is a major pain. The bacteria and fungi find their way into breaks in the horse's skin. The conditions for its development are excessively moist or dirty environment and repeated wetting and drying of the skin (damp, muddy pastures or wet stalls).

Which horses are at risk?

Scratches isn't a fussy disease, as any horse can get it; but the condition is widely prevalent in draft horses with feathers or long fetlock hair that retain moisture. Horses with white legs are also at risk because un-pigmented skin is more susceptible to sun damage, chaffing and abrasions making it more at risk for infection.

How are scratches treated?

A rule of thumb is: "Don't scratch scratches".

Carefully clip the hair away from the infected area, taking care not to scrape or break the skin. Once the area is clipped, gently wash the affected areas with an antibacterial shampoo (such as chlorhexidine, betadine, or benzoyl peroxide) or an antifungal shampoo (1-2% miconazole) and let it sit for about 10 minutes before gently rinsing. Rough scrubbing and harsh chemicals should be avoided. Scabs can be massaged off carefully, but don't pull or pick them. Using a clean towel, carefully pat the area dry and apply a topical treatment as directed by your veterinarian. Limit washing sessions to only once a day for 7-10 days. Then cut back the frequency to 2-3 times per week until resolved.

Ointments that your veterinarian will recommend for scratches include antibiotics, antifungals, steroids and other medications. In more serious cases, systemic antibiotics may be needed.

The primary defense to allow healing is a dry, clean environment. This means you may need to find an alternative living situation for your horse if he/she is fighting a case of scratches. Horses should be kept off wet pastures and housed in a clean, dry stall. Shavings should be of the large, fluffy variety. Milled shavings should be avoided as they contain more moisture. Applying a layer of zinc-oxide based cream (ie. Desitin®) to DRY affected areas may also help soften scabs and provide a moisture barrier to allow healing to occur.

If you've been treating scratches unsuccessfully, you should call your veterinarian out to have a look. A severe lameness and/or deep wounds with swelling, excessive heat or white/yellow discharge also warrants a call to your veterinarian.

What can be done to prevent scratches?

  • Keep the footing dry inside the stall and turnout area; use dry bedding and fill in muddy areas around gates
  • Dry your horse's legs before putting him up in a stall.
  • Avoid early morning turnout when there is heavy dew or frost on the ground.
  • Do not use wraps or boots that will retain moisture around the infected areas. Do not share boots between horses.
  • Horses with long leg hair or feathers may benefit from hair removal/clipping so that moisture and contaminants are not trapped against the skin.
  • Early detection is the best medicine - check your horse's legs frequently for early signs of infection and routinely groom your horse to prevent mud build-up on legs.

If your horse has scratches, please consult with us for treatment recommendations by calling 765-494-8548.