Even horses who receive the best of care may develop the occasional skin problem. There's just no avoiding the host of bacteria, fungi, viruses and insects that can lead to lumps and bumps, scurfy scabs, itchiness and hair loss.
In most cases, equine skin troubles are minor and require nothing more than a thorough cleansing and the application of an over-the-counter topical remedy. Nonetheless, these conditions are generally itchy, annoying or even painful for horses, so the more promptly you can recognize and address them the better for all concerned.
To help you, we've included a brief profile of some equine problems that you are likely to encounter, along with advice on how to treat and prevent it.
When in doubt, of course, you'll want to call in your veterinarian for a diagnosis as well as guidance in treating the condition.
(also known as viral papillomas)
- What you see: raised, pinpoint-to pea-size globular bumps. Warts are typically clustered around the muzzle and lips but sometimes appear on the eyelids and genitalia.
- Is it contagious? Yes.
- Cause: The papilloma virus causes warts. It is spread both through direct contact and indirectly via shared feed tubs, water containers, scratching posts, grooming supplies and other care items.
- Pertinent facts: Most common in horses younger than 18 months old, warts can be found among horses up to 3 years of age. After that, they have usually built up an immunity to the papilloma virus.
- Treatment: Warts disappear on their own within two to three months, but squeezing or scraping away one or two of the larger growths may stimulate the body's immune system and provide a quicker resolution. A single outbreak of warts confers lifetime immunity except in the rarest of cases.
- Prevention: Should a horse in your barn contract warts, take measures to prevent the virus from spreading: Isolate the animal from other young horses, and use separate water and feed containers, grooming supplies and other horse-care items.
(also known as pastern dermatitis, greasy heel or mud fever)
- What you see: red, irritated skin with crusted, raised scabs just above the heels of both hind legs, or rarely, on a single leg or the forelegs.
- Is it contagious? No, but it's usually complicated by bacterial infection.
- Cause: Scratches starts as chapping that is generally brought on by a cycle of alternating wet and dry weather conditions common in late winter and spring. Once the skin becomes cracked and sore, however, bacteria, mites and/or plant irritants often complicate the situation.
- Pertinent facts: Scratches almost always occurs on both hind legs, below and behind the ankle. If scabs appear on only one hind leg or on a front leg, consider the possibility that you're dealing with an injury rather than pastern dermatitis.
- Treatment: Areas affected by scratches are often very tender, so be especially careful when working on or around them. Start by washing the affected spot with warm water and shampoo. Once the area is dry, gently clip the hair around the scabs and apply Desitin, ichthammol, petroleum jelly or another lubricating wound ointment sold at pharmacies. Reapply the ointment every day or so until all the scabs loosen and fall away. NOTE: Avoid repeatedly washing the leg, which will encourage more chapping. If the treated area becomes dirty, use a clean cloth to wipe off the soiled ointment and reapply a fresh coat.
- Prevention: Mud, which harbors a variety of bacteria, and moisture are the main culprits in aggravated scratches. For example, the condition is common in draft horses with feathered lower legs; the long, thick hairs trap moisture, which softens and weakens the skin and allows bacteria or fungi to gain a foothold. If your horse is susceptible to scratches, do your best to keep him in a dry environment during the scratches season, winter or spring in most climes. Clipping excessive lower leg hair, particularly on a draft breed or draft-cross, may minimize the risk of scratches or make treatment easier should the problem develop. Finally, it may help to keep a protective coating of ointment on the heels of chronic scratches sufferers.
- What you see: circular, raised hairless patches that may be scaly and crusty.
- Is it contagious? Yes.
- Cause: Several species of fungus can cause ringworm. One of the most common is Trichophyton equinum, which is spread from horse to horse. Some species, such as Microsporum gypsum, are found in the soil, while Microsporum canis, a rare cause of ringworm, can be carried on the hair of cats and dogs. Ringworm is spread through direct contact or through shared grooming supplies or other care items. In most cases of ringworm, fungi invade the skin through scrapes, abrasions or other minor breaches in the surface.
- Pertinent facts: Ringworm can affect any part of the body but lesions are usually found on the face, neck, chest, shoulder or on the girth area (known as girth itch). Ringworm infection may initially cause the hair at a site to stand erect before it becomes noticeably affected. The lesions, which tend to be grouped in clusters, may be red and scabby but are usually not itchy. Ringworm is zoonotic (transmissible to people) so wear gloves when handling a horse with the condition.
- Treatment: If left untreated, ringworm will go into spontaneous remission within about three months, but most people treat horses to speed healing and avoid contagion. Talk to your veterinarian about the best option. If an outbreak occurs at your barn, you may want to do a culture to identify the organism at work. Regardless of the fungus involved, you'll want to avoid treating ringworm with creams or lotions containing corticosteroids--inflammation is one of the body's natural fungus-fighting mechanisms. Instead try one of the following common treatments: Lime sulfur (Lym Dyp) spray or solution is an effective, nontoxic treatment, but it does carry a strong "rotten eggs" odor. For small or localized lesions, products containing chlorhexidine or miconazole--a common ingredient in athlete's foot medications--also have been recommended. Several antifungal sprays and shampoos can also be purchased at tack shops and through catalogs. Iodine (tincture of iodine) has been used to treat ringworm but is not very effective and it can cause severe irritation.
- Prevention:Because ringworm is highly contagious and fungal spores can remain in the environment for months or even years, disinfect all tack, blankets, brushes, stall walls and anything else that might have come in contact with infected horses. Keep separate grooming supplies for each animal. If a single horse contracts a severe case of ringworm, talk to your veterinarian about preventive treatment baths for all of the horses in the barn.