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What is Mud Fever?

Some bacteria and fungi thrive in hot, humid and muddy conditions.  They attach themselves to the horse’s skin.  Bacteria such as dermatophilus congolensis and the fungal organism, dermatophytes can stay dormant on the horse’s skin.  If the equine’s skin is damaged or injured, the organisms are then able to gain access into the horse’s body. All horses can get mud fever but horses with white legs are more susceptible to the condition.

Mud fever is also known as pastern dermatitis. Mud fever is the inflammation and irritation of the horse’s skin, usually on his pastern or heel area. Pastern dermatitis can sometimes be found on the horse’s belly, upper limbs or neck. Mud fever is also referred to as greasy heal, dew poisoning or cracked heel.

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Symptoms of Mud Fever in Horses

Symptoms of mud fever may include:

  • Lesions
  • Open sores
  • Greenish discharge
  • Hair loss
  • Crusty scabs
  • Fever
  • Depression
  • Lethargy
  • Pain when touched
  • Swelling
  • Depression
  • Loss of appetite

Causes of Mud Fever in Horses

Mud fever is caused by bacteria or fungal organisms that thrive in damp conditions. Exposing the horse to the following conditions can make them susceptible to mud fever:

  • Exposure to prolonged damp/rainy conditions
  • Prolonged standing in deep mud or water
  • Wet paddocks
  • Washing the horse’s limbs too often and not drying them
  • Excessive sweating
  • Sharing of grooming equipment or tack that are contaminated by the infectious organism
  • Not clipping the horse’s long feathers, which can hold in moisture against the skin
  • Wet bedding

Diagnosis of Mud Fever in Horses

The equine veterinarian will go over your horse’s medical history. He will ask you what symptoms you have observed and when they started.  The veterinarian will perform a physical exam that may include listening to your horse’s heart and lungs with a stethoscope, taking the patient’s temperature, palpation of the lymph nodes, limbs and skin. He may also take the patient’s blood pressure and pulse. The veterinarian may want to remove one of the scabs to see what the skin looks like beneath it.  

The veterinarian may be able to diagnose mud fever by the visual inspection of the skin.  To confirm the diagnoses he may suggest taking a culture or a skin scrape.  The skin scrape is placed on a slide and observed under a microscope. The bacteria is visible under the microscope. A skin culture can help diagnose a fungal infection. The veterinarian may suggest a complete blood count (CBC) to rule a secondary bacterial infection and to check the overall health of the horse. An elevated white cell count can confirm, if your horse has a bacterial infection.

Treatment of Mud Fever in Horses

Once your equine is diagnosed with mud fever the veterinarian will recommend keeping the horse in a clean and dry stall.  The horse will be placed on stall rest and should not be allowed to be left in damp or wet conditions.  The veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications to help with the infection and the swelling. The veterinarian may want the scabs soaked in warm soapy water and then gently removed.  He may recommend a mild sedative for the patient while the scabs are being removed. When the scabs are removed the skin will need to be washed with an antibacterial medication. The horse needs to be patted down gently; his skin is very painful and tender. The hair on the infected area should be cut away, this will make it easier to care for the infection. Corticosteroid topical creams will help the lesions heal. Products such as Fiske’s Hoof and Hide Balm have been shown to be very effective in treating many skin conditions, including mud fever. In severe cases of mud fever, the horse must not be ridden or turned out until he has made a full recovery.

The stalls, grooming equipment and tack must be cleaned and disinfected.  Your horse’s bedding should be changed daily and more often in cases of stall rest.

Recovery of Mud Fever in Horses

Full recovery of mud fever in horses may take several weeks.  The horse will need follow-up visits to monitor his progress.  It is important to follow the veterinarian’s treatment plan. The veterinarian may want to have the complete blood count retaken to ensure there is no longer a bacterial infection.

To prevent mud fever from returning, it is important that the horse has shelter during rainy conditions. The horse’s limbs should be cleaned and dried after exercise activities. When you wash your horse, he must be thoroughly dried.  The horse should never be left in standing water and/or mud.  Riding and grooming equipment should not be shared between horses. Stalls and paddocks must be kept clean.  Bedding area should be cleaned and changed often.