Mud fever in horses is a common skin condition that causes a skin irritation to the horses lower legs. As the name suggests; many horses who experience mud fever generally develop the condition by standing in wet and muddy ground. It is far more common in winter and autumn but can occur at any point in the year.
Let's take a closer look at Mud Fever in horses
Mud fever is also referred to as 'pastern dermatitis' and in fact can appear anywhere on the horses body; not just their legs as many would first believe. The condition can also be found on the belly, neck, hindquarters and the back of the horse. If the condition is found on the horses back or neck this is referred to as ‘rain scald’ rather than mud fever.
Mud fever can effect all breeds although the condition is more commonly reported on draft horses (due to their feathers) and on breeds with more sensitive skin. The condition can effect your pet horse at home or a competing sports horse.
Symptoms of mud fever in horses
In the majority of cases mud fever will appear on the pastern of the horse, between the fetlock and the horses hoof.
The most common indications your horse is suffering from mud fever is the appearance of broken or damaged skin, if left alone these can turn into crusty scabs which will often appear on the heals or lower part of the horses leg.
Patches of hair loss will likely appear showing raw skin underneath and sometimes a creamy or white discharge will show between the skin and the scabs.
In many cases the horses leg will begin to swell up and the legs themselves will heat up and be sore to touch. In severe cases some horses will become lame.
The biggest issue with mud fever, other than your horse being in pain, are the bacterial infections that can occur from the condition.
Horse with feathers are prone to leg mites, often indicated by them stamping their legs on the ground to alleviate any itchiness. If you believe your horse has mites then it’s worth speaking to your vet for further advice.
The sooner you detect any signs of infection in the horses skin the better. As with many health related conditions in horses, early detection can be key to providing a prompt response and avoiding further complications. Checking your horses legs on a daily basis, particularly in wetter months, is vital.
Causes of mud fever in horses
The cause of mud fever in horses is an infection caused by bacteria entering the damaged skin.
Your horse is at risk of developing mud fever if they:
- Stand in wet or muddy ground for extended periods of time
- Stand in dirty bedding for extended periods of time
- Have an abrasion or wound to the skin
- Have sensitive skin (horses with white socks and pink skin are often more sensitive)
- Have thin skin, such as Thoroughbred or Arabian breeds
- Have a weakened immune system
Can mud fever in horses create lameness?
Although mud fever rarely causes lameness, if left untreated further complications can occur.
Cellulitis is a bacterial skin infection of the deeper layers of the skin which can sometimes be seen with untreated dermatitis. If cellulitis occurs this can spread to all areas of the body and if it effects the bloodstream can be life threatening. In most cases cellulitis requires antibiotic treatment.
Chronic inflammation of the soft tissue can also occur if mud fever is left untreated.
Both of these conditions can result in varying level of lameness.
Treatment for mud fever in horses
It is important for your horses wellbeing that if you do suspect signs of mud fever that you contact your vet as soon as possible. Your vet will be able to accuracy diagnose the condition, including taking a swab to check for any bacterial infection or even taking a blood sample in severe cases. They will then tailor any treatment to the specific skin condition.
Once diagnosed many vets will give you advice on how best to treat the condition and in most cases will be happy for you to treat the condition yourself.
It is worth reminding yourself of the causes of the condition as understanding the causes can pinpoint exactly what changes to the horse environment are required to help treat the condition.
In most cases the following treatments can support your horses recovery:
1) Paddock maintenance
Make sure they are removed from the muddy ground and do what you can to keep the horses legs and feet dry. Ensure that bedding and areas they are standing are as clean (and dry) as possible.
2) Remove scabs
If your horse has mild scabs which are loose, these can sometimes be removed to aid the natural healing process - often following the application of softening creams or oils. If the scabs are severe and not loose then this may not be possible as removing scabs can be extremely painful. Your vet will be best placed to advise you.
3) Clean the area of concern
It is vital that you clean the affected area several times a day. Use a mild disinfectant such as diluted Hibiscrub and rinse away with clean water. Dry the leg as best as possible and apply some badges to the area to prevent mud contacting the area.
4) Protect their legs with boots
Invest in a pair of ‘mud fever’ boots. These boots are specifically designed to prevent your horse from getting further bacterial infections. Ensure they are well fitted and that the horses skin is not too sensitive when in contact with the boots material. Caution is required here as many sensitivity issues will exacerbated by fitting tack to already infected skin. Advanced magnetic technology, such as EQU StreamZ horse bands, can also help support a reduction in inflammation and aid the horses recovery process.
5) You may need to clip your horses feathers
If your horse has feathers you may need to clip their feathers to expose the skin on the leg and provide a clean environment to treat the area.
6) Apply a barrier cream
In the majority mud fever cases a ‘barrier cream’ can be applied to provide a clean environment to promote healing - there any many creams available so again it is worth asking your vet which one they would suggest. Once the cream is applied a few layers of cling film wrapped around the entire leg can help keep the cream in place. Apply a bandage or vet rap over the top of the cling film once finished. If your horse in turned out then this may not be possible. Applying cream can help fight off the infection and loosen any scabs which may arise but does require daily reapplication and thoroughly cleaning between each application.
7) Administer anti-inflammatories if prescribed by the vet
Some vets will prescribe a prescription of anti-inflammatory medication if your horse is showing signs of inflammation or swelling.
Natural treatment for horses with mud fever
As holistic and alternative therapies are on the rise within the equine community, many owners now prefer looking at more natural approaches to supporting their horses mud fever condition.
Essential oils can be helpful when managing mud fever. With so many essential oils available and no clinical support to support their use, it is often worth consulting with a qualified aromatherapist before applying essential oils.
Homeopathy can also be helpful when treating mud fever. As with essential oils, with so many homeopathic remedies available it is worth consulting with a specialist homeopathic vet prior to use. Echinacea, as an example, has been linked to many benefits including reduced inflammation, improved immunity and the lowering of blood sugar levels. Honey is also widely used to help with mud fever conditions.
Managing your horses diet and ensuring they are receiving the right amounts of antioxidants within their diet can be beneficial. As with humans, a mixed and balanced diet is important.
Supplements providing vitamins and nutrients can also support your horses recovery from mud fever. There are many supplements available on the market which are developed to support horses with mud fever and help prevent the condition before it occurs. Many of these contain MSM and zinc with properties relating to healthy skin and some contain supplements aimed at fighting inflammation, such as turmeric.
If you do decide to support your horses mud fever recovery with natural herbs and remedies it is well worth noting that these are non-clinical and as such are not supported by most vets. In many cases they are beneficial as a complementary approach.
Prevention of mud fever in horses
Preventing mud fever, particularly on horses who have experienced mud fever in the past, can be an important step in managing their ongoing happiness and prevent the onset of lameness.
In the majority of cases the best form of prevention is ensuring the horses legs and feet are not subjected to long periods of time in muddy ground conditions. Equally, if your horse is turned in and stabled then make sure their bedding is clean and dry.
Good paddock management can be of great benefit. If you have different areas of land or several paddocks, alternate where they are turned out and ensure any feeding or watering areas are not too muddy. Some owners will prevent overly muddy ground by using rubber matting in the areas where the horse eats and drinks. If certain areas of the paddock are overly muddy then you could look to section these muddy areas off with electric fencing.
If your horse is turned out in the same muddy ground then applying topical barrier creams and attaching boots can also be beneficial. Creams and/or boots can however create the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive - so use these with caution. Some over reach boots are developed for mud fever and include breathable yet waterproof materials.
Applying creams and oils to the horses legs and feet can also be beneficial; aimed at providing a barrier between the horses skin and the mud. Vaseline and coconut oil are widely used for this however vegetable or baby oil are also commonly used.
Mud fever is caused by bacteria and is more commonly seen in the wetter months of the year so understanding tips in how to care for your horse in the winter months can be beneficial.
The condition can effect all horses of any age and across all breeds.
Prevention of mud fever can be much easier to manage than dealing with the condition once it occurs. Try and keep your horses legs and feet dry and free from being submerged in mud.
If mud fever does occur; contact your vet.