Q: What do you recommend as a treatment for scratches? My Thoroughbred has had a very bad case since August, and nothing I try seems to work. I have had the veterinarian out twice. She has shaved his leg and prescribed antibiotics and medicated shampoo, but we just can't seem to cure this. I have been told about a lot of home remedies, but I am not sure what I should do. Can you suggest how I might help this wonderful horse?
A: You have sure hit upon a challenging problem! Scratches, technically known as pastern dermatitis, is a combination of inflammation and infection of the skin on the lower legs of horses.
We usually see scratches during the wet, muddy times of year. It starts off looking like red, irritated skin. If left untreated, scratches causes hair loss, oozing and the formation of large crusts. These crusts can be painful to the touch, and I have even seen horses become lame because of them. Occasionally the legs swell up and deeper infections can occur (cellulitis).
Many treatments for scratches are available, which means there is no magic bullet. Steroids, applied topically, are often needed to reduce inflammation. We then add antibacterial, antifungal or antiparasitic medications topically and, occasionally, systemically. Finally, a protectant, such as zinc oxide or sunscreen, is applied to prevent continued irritation of the skin.
For non-responsive cases, I perform blood work, look for signs of Cushing's disease and do a skin biopsy and culture for bacteria and fungus. You need to find out what is causing the condition in your gelding. In spite of intensive treatment, some horses, especially Thoroughbreds, are not cured, and I recommend daily gentle removal of crusts and use of steroid ointments to keep the condition under control.
David Trachtenberg, DVM
Ledgewood Equine Veterinary Clinic
Ontario, New York