NEER North
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Spring Trouble – All about Equine Scratches

written by: Leah Strassman

What are 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”.

What Causes Scratches?

Spring, or mud season as we call it in the Northeast is a time to be particularly aware of this condition since it is brought on by wet conditions.  The condition occurs when there are breaks in the skin letting bacteria, fungus and even virus flourish.  The wet and/or wet dry conditions of spring are a major factor.

Any horse can get scratches, horses with feathers, (long hair on the legs) and white legs are more prone to the condition, as the feathers can retain moisture and the unpigmented skin is more delicate.

How are Scratches Treated?

Treatment involves keeping the affected area dry, clipping the hair away from the area helps, and getting the horse out of the mud to a dry paddock and or stall.   Mild cases can be treated by keeping the area clean and dry.

If the condition is more severe, if there is any heat or swelling – a call to the vet is in order.  Treatment could include topical antifungal and antibacterial applications, steroids or antibiotics.  As in the mild case, keeping the area clean and dry is important.

How Can Scratches be Prevented?

  • 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.


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