What is scratches?
As we move into the winter and spring months, the wet and muddy conditions mean it's not only harder to keep our horses clean, but they also are at a greater risk for developing scratches! According to The Merck Veterinary Manual, “Scratches is a chronic, seborrheic (flaky skin) dermatitis characterized by hypertrophy (enlargement of the skin cells) and exudation (oozing) on the caudal (rear) surface of the pastern and fetlock. It often is associated with poor stable hygiene, but no specific cause is known.” Excessively damp and dirty environments are a breeding ground for bacteria, and muddy pastures where the skin is repeatedly getting wet and drying enables fungi to find their way into breaks in the horse's skin. If left untreated, the lesions can spread to the front of the pastern and fetlock. Also known as “mud fever”, “greasy heel”, “pastern dermatitis”, or “dew poisoning”, understanding and treating scratches is very important to your horse’s health!
Which horses are at risk?
While scratches can affect any horse, those with long feathers or fetlock hair, such as draft horses, are particularly at risk as excess moisture can easily be trapped and retained in the long hair. It has also been noted that horses with light-colored legs or white socks are also particularly susceptible to scratches as un-pigmented skin is more prone to sun damage, chafing, and abrasions. The hind limbs are more commonly affected.
How to treat scratches?
If severe lameness, swelling, white or yellow discharge, or deep wounds with excessive heat occur, be sure to alert your veterinarian!
According to the Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine, a rule of thumb is: “Don’t scratch scratches!”
The most important form of defense is to allow healing to occur in a clean, dry environment. If your horse is fighting scratches, avoid letting them out in a wet field or putting them in a damp stable while they heal. Large, fluffy shavings for the stable are preferable, and milled shavings should be avoided, as they are prone to retaining excess moisture.
Carefully clip the hair away from the infected area, then wash with antibacterial or antifungal shampoo, and allow it to sit for up to 10 minutes before rinsing. Avoid rough scrubbing, harsh chemicals, and do not pull or pick off scabs, as this can further aggravate inflammation. Carefully pat the area dry and apply Zarasyl barrier cream twice daily. Do not over-wash the area, as excess additional moisture may inflame the area, and continue to apply Zarasyl daily until resolved.
How to prevent scratches?
Avoid turning your horse early in the morning after heavy dew and frosts, particularly to muddy or wet pastures, especially those with tall grass during dews and heavy rain. Regularly check your horses legs for dryness, redness, flakiness, and irritation of the skin, and groom often to avoid mud build-up. As soon as you detect a problem, be sure to begin treating it promptly. Keep all boots and wraps clean and dry, and pat-dry your horse’s legs when they come in from a field to be put in a stall. Ensure all walk-ways, footing, and stabling are kept dry.
A case of scratches where Zarasyl Equine Barrier cream was used: