Stop Horse Scratches
Table of Contents
What are Scratches?
“Scratches” goes by many names, all of which refer to the same condition—pastern dermatitis. This condition affects the lower leg of the horse and is caused by repeated wet/dry/wet conditions. Especially common during the spring when pastures and paddocks are muddy, scratches can generally be diagnosed and treated in several easy steps utilizing over-the-counter products. That said, it is important to closely monitor the horse’s condition and consult your veterinarian with questions or if the condition worsens.
Equine Pastern Dermatitis (EPD)
Scratches, Mud Fever, Dew Poisoning, Greasy heels…these are all terms for the same condition, equine pastern dermatitis (EPD). This condition is not a disease, but a cutaneous reaction pattern4. EPD is usually (but not always) a seasonal condition, triggered by a wet, muddy environment. Prolonged exposure causes an inflammation of the skin on the horse’s pasterns. The skin can display a scabby, crusty appearance and may ooze. In some cases, the affected area could be itchy to the horse.
The primary symptom of scratches is lesions located on the back of the pasterns. Initially, the horse may display swelling, redness and scaly skin, followed by oozing which causes a scabby or crusty appearance. A secondary bacterial infection is a common complication, especially if left untreated. In chronic cases, you may observe thickening and fissures in the skin, as this area is constantly in movement.
Scratches is more commonly seen on the hind pasterns. Additionally, non-pigmented skin (light-colored legs, or white socks) seems to be more affected than pigmented skin. Un-pigmented skin is more susceptible to sun damage and chafing, which translates to a higher risk of infection1. If left untreated, scratches can spread to the front of the pastern and fetlock joint. The lesions are painful and may be itchy.
Some horses develop chronic (recurring) scratches. In these cases, granulomas may be present. A granuloma is a collection of immune cells, called macrophages. They form as an immune response to a foreign substance that the body is unable to eliminate.
If the area becomes hot and visibly swollen, the infection has become more serious—consult your veterinarian immediately at this stage.
What's the Cause?
Scratches is a general team, referring to inflammation of the skin on the horse’s pasterns. This can be caused by either bacteria or fungi. The over-saturated skin becomes more susceptible to abrasions; as soon as the barrier is breached, microorganisms can invade and cause infection.
It is important to look for the root cause of scratches—a wet environment. Moving your horse to a drier paddock or pasture could help in the short term. High-traffic areas, such as those near gates and water troughs tend to be muddier than other areas. It may be worth adding gravel to these areas, or improving drainage to eliminate standing water and alleviate muddy conditions.
Scratches may not be caused by wet or muddy environments—you should also consider environmental conditions that may irritate and damage the skin to the pasterns.
- Deep, coarse arena footing
- Improperly fitting bell boots or splint boots
- Irritation caused by chemically treated shavings used in the stall
Scratches can affect any breed, but some breeds are more genetically predisposed than others. Draft horses or breeds with “feathers” are more likely to get scratches, as the longer hair creates an environment prone to trapping dirt and moisture.
Always consult your veterinarian if you are not sure what you’re dealing with, if the infection gets worse, or if it is not showing signs of healing after treatment. Other conditions, such as mange or vasculitis, may present similar symptoms to scratches. Your vet may recommend a prescription medication depending on the origin in severe cases.
How do I treat Scratches?
If you think your horse is suffering from scratches, there are several things you should do:
- Address the environmental factor. Once you have determined the root cause, take action to eliminate it. Move the horse to a drier location, limit turnout during wet conditions, discontinue use of any equipment that may be causing irritation, or consider a switch to a different brand/type of shavings.
- Clip the pasterns & fetlocks to reduce moisture retention. Use care not to scrape or break the skin.
- Wash the affected area using an antibacterial soap, like something containing Betadine. Carefully clean the affected skin; use caution as it will likely be painful to the horse. Don’t wash more than once per day; too much moisture can exacerbate the problem.
- Thoroughly dry the area (gently, with a towel). You may want to use a hair dryer (on a low / cool setting).
- Don’t scratch scratches! This also means you should not pick at scabs.
- Apply a topical antibiotic cream, such as Corona ointment, to the area to create a barrier between the environment and the open sore. This will help reduce the possibility of re-infection.
Severe cases may require a topical treatment with antibacterial or antifungal properties; these need to be prescribed by your veterinarian.
In some cases, an oral antibiotic may be necessary to treat the problem from the inside out. Again, this would need to be prescribed by your veterinarian.
Scratches can affect any horse, but is typically associated with wet, muddy, dirty conditions. Prevention is always preferable to treatment! To prevent scratches:
Examine your horse regularly to catch any signs of trouble early
Don’t turn out horses in wet or muddy conditions. Avoid turning out in early mornings when dew is on the grass
Keep stalls clean and dry
Clip lower legs to prevent dirt and moisture from being trapped against the skin
Avoid boots or wraps that trap moisture against the skin. Don’t share tack & equipment between horses
If your horse develops scratches, move them to a dry, clean environment. Treat the area by clipping away hair, washing, and coating in a topical antibiotic (or antifungal) cream. Closely monitor progress; if your horse fails to respond to treatment after 10-14 days, or if the condition worsens, call your veterinarian.