No matter the name . . . scratches or dew poisoning or greasy heel . . . that mixed bacterial, sometimes fungal, skin condition that occurs most commonly on the back of the pasterns but can creep around to the front in some cases is a major pain. Annoying pain for you and real pain for your horse, especially if it develops deep, infected cracks. Download a PDF of this article.
Scratches can occur from standing in an excessively moist or dirty environment (stalls that haven’t been cleaned, muddy paddock, etc.) or constant walking through mud and wet, scratchy grass. Skin can split and bleed in severe cases, but more commonly horses just have very itchy scabs with thickened, flaky skin.
The condition is widely prevalent in draft horses and Friesians because their feathers prevent air from getting to the pastern area to dry it out. A bad case of scratches can sometimes occur on the front legs behind the carpus (knee). Better to clip the hair (YES! Feathers too because they will grow back!) and treat the area with the medications that your veterinarian recommends.
Our veterinarians have noted in the past that horses with foot/lower leg problems are more susceptible to scratches, probably because the inflammatory response is already activated from the other problem. Skin may also be more sensitive when it is inflamed or when slightly irritating topical treatments are applied to the leg.
TREATMENT OF MILD CASES
At the first sign of scratches, which might be crusty bumps, gently wash the area with Excalibur, a tea-tree-based sheath cleaner (it works great!). The antimicrobial properties of the cleaner will help eliminate mild infection. Note: Some horses are sensitive to tea-tree oil, so do a 24-hour spot test first, if you’ve never used it on your horse before.
The sheath cleaner will help soften and loosen the crusts if you allow it to remain on the pasterns for five minutes or so before rinsing off. The crusts should rinse off without any painful scrubbing or pulling. One rule of thumb: Don’t scratch “scratches!” If you further irritate the skin, you can drive the infection deeper and really stir the hornet’s nest.
Rinse well then dry the area as best you can, using a terrycloth towel or a blow dryer if your horse doesn’t mind. Wrapping, at least overnight, can help control swelling and keep the area clean. You can soothe the skin with an emollient (see products list below). Cover it with a non-adherent wrap, like a Telfa pad or a diaper to protect the area and promote healing.
If the condition doesn’t clear within a few days, you’ll need to get more aggressive with the topical treatment for better antimicrobial effect.
If the area is swollen, hot and red with open cracks in the skin with red interiors, you have an infection brewing. Bacteria, fungi or both are likely involved when it escalates to this level. Organisms may gain access to the deeper layers of skin and cause a cellulitis, which may require the help of your veterinarian. Wraps or exercise — anything that increases circulation and heat in the leg — can worsen the condition.
Bacterial infections require topical antibiotic creams (we mean a “real” antibiotic, such as Bacitracin or another over-the-counter antibiotic wound cream). Rub into both the area of scratches and any swelling on the leg.
You may need to try a couple of remedies before you find the one effective against your horse’s case of scratches. Give the treatment three days to work and, if you see no improvement in the scratches, switch remedies. Still no improvement, consult your veterinarian. The longer scratches go untreated, the more pain for your horse, and the more difficult they are to heal.
If you know you’re going to be working your horse through mud and wet fields, you can use Desitin, Corona, generic zinc oxide cream, aloe gels, or even plain petroleum jelly to help protect the area. In addition, clip away the long fetlock hair as a preventive measure (trust us, it's worth it). Remember, that wet hair holds in mud and moisture.
If your horse does get scratches, keep the area clean and dry, and apply the treatment daily at the very first sign. Start simple with cleansing, drying, application of your treatment choice (see product recommendations) and practice moisture control with clipping . Protect the area with Corona or Desitin ointment. It may be just enough to do the trick.
If you’re in a pinch, we’d start with either the 50:50 mixture of Clotrimazole (over the counter generic) and a triple antibiotic wound cream.
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