Scratches on horses


Scratches on horses, also known as dew poisoning, mud fever, greasy heel, pastern dermatitis, and a few other names, is nothing to ignore. It can be painful for your horse and time-consuming to heal.


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  • Here’s the scene – you are diligently doing your daily leg inspection and you are working your way down the legs and you feel a little scabby bump….Hhhhmmmm… it scratches?


  • If you check your horse’s legs daily, you will likely catch this case of scratches before any significant damage is done.


small scab on horse heel that indicates equine scratches or dermatitis

The very beginnings of scratches.


Involve your veterinarian with your horse’s treatment of scratches.


  • The primary challenge with scratches and mud fever is finding the cause.  It could be: 


    • bacteria
    • fungus
    • a liver problem
    • UV sensitivity
    • allergies


  • Lower leg skin infections, like scratches, fall under the huge umbrella of equine pastern dermatitis (EPD).  Finding the cause will lead you and your vet to the appropriate treatment.


  • While it can be a seemingly localized pain in the &*$^@, scratches can also be quite serious, causing lameness and pain, and often requiring systemic treatments such as antibiotics.


  • You can also use an actual barrier to keep the scabs protected and covered and keep additional infections from invading with special horse socks. Yes, they exist, and yes, they are awesome.



white hoof standing in grass with a sock on

These Silver Whinnys keep the scratches infection clean and dry. You can absolutely get the sox gross and muddy and wet.


Scratches is a general term for the scabby crusty skin condition typically seen on the pasterns.


  • Scratches are common when the legs remain damp or wet – in tall pastures, during the rainy times of the year, when there is a lot of mud.


  • It seems to be more common on white legs, and can spread up the cannon bones.


  • For horses with a lot of feathers, it may be harder to find and also harder to treat. And, because feathers tend to hold in dirt and damp, you will need to step up your feather grooming and inspection routine.


  • For all intents and purposes, the causes of scratches are a mixed bag of bugs and environmental microbes. The infection is largely bacterial, although a small amount of fungus can be present in some cases.


  • You are unlikely to pinpoint the actual cause and specific microbes without your veterinarian doing a skin scraping or biopsy.


before and after scratches on horse lower leg

YUCK YUCK YUCK… but then it gets better!


Should you pick the scabs?


  • From the veterinarian’s perspective, the scabs need to be out of the way so your treatment can reach the skin under the scab.


  • Now – the conundrum – how to do that without making the already irritated skin angrier!


  • It’s recommended that you use an oxydex shampoo or malaseb shampoo to start. Lather those legs, and let it sit. For a long time – about 10 minutes.


  • Then massage off the scabs carefully with either your fingertips or a pimple mitt. The real trick is to do all of this without making the skin angrier.


  • So, gently shampoo. Careful massaging to remove the scabs. Gentle rinsing, not using the “jet” setting of your nozzle.


The case for leaving the scabs alone


  • Some horses may respond better if the hair and scabs are left alone.  Scabs all the skin to heal properly, and will come off on their own when ready.  There is some logic to leaving them alone.  


Keep the legs clean and dry


  • Now you can cover the affected area with your veterinarian’s choice of ointments, after the legs are totally dry and clean. Then cover, and keep dry and clean.


  • Standing wraps and quilts may be in order here, too. The primary defense to allow for healing is a clean and dry environment.


  • This means you may need to find alternative living situations for your guy if he’s fighting a case of scratches. Bring him in from a wet paddock or muddy lot, or find higher ground with no mud or wet grass.


  • Keep your horse’s bedding clean, and don’t let him stand in dirt, bedding, the arena, or mud when the legs are wet. You want to get rid of the moisture before your horse’s legs contact anything that could harbor bacteria.


Should you clip the hair around the scabs?


  • The other debate – clip or don’t clip the area where scratches are happening.


  • If you keep your horse’s legs clipped a bit shorter during “scratches season”, you can help keep things clean and dry. Lots of hair can trap microbes and moisture. Clipped legs are also much easier to keep clean, which also helps prevent scratches.


  • Clipping closely can make the irritated skin angry, so if the leg is super hairy, can you get away with scissors to get the bulk of hair away? This will help your medicine get closer.


  • If things get worse or out of hand, please talk to your veterinarian about systemic prescriptions, like antibiotics, steroids, and immune boosters.


  • You can also find protective horse socks that create a barrier between conditions and your horse. These socks are machine washable, so that’s a bonus.





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SHAPLEY'S Medi-Care Med Shampoo W/Tea Tree & Lemon Grass, 32 oz
$18.95 $17.99

The best shampoo for shine and soothing.

06/06/2024 02:03 pm GMT
Whinny Wellies from Sox For Horses

Tough, weather-resistant covering for wraps and bandaging.

Silver Bells - Sox For Horses

For hoof protection when equine pastern dermatitis is a risk.

Big Hoss - Outlaw Nutrition

Omega 3's plus gut health support in a delicious cold milled flax formula. It's delicious and it will turn your horse's coat into a mirror.

Thank you!