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What is Scratches ?

Scratches is most often found in horses who spend large amounts of time in wet or damp areas. This condition results in bacteria and fungi getting into your horse’s skin causing pain and irritation. This can mimic many other conditions of your horse’s heels and pasterns, so it will be important to keep up with his hygiene and health to avoid this issue. Your horse may present with scabs, cracks, irritation, redness, itchiness, and sensitivity. Veterinary care may be required if the condition is difficult to eradicate or if infection sets in. Other names for the condition are mud fever and greasy heel.

Scratches in horses is a common form of dermatitis that impacts your horse’s heels and pasterns. This condition can become quite painful for him and may be hard to find due to the nature of your horse having large amounts of hair in these areas.

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Symptoms of Scratches in Horses

  • Itchiness
  • Sensitivity – There may be sensitivity in his heels and pasterns when touched or when he walks 
  • Swelling – You may even notice a visible swelling
  • Thickened skin – As the condition progresses, your horse’s skin may begin to thicken and harden
  • Odor – You may notice a strong and unpleasant odor emanating from your horse’s heels and pasterns as the condition worsens 
  • Lameness – Your horse may begin to develop difficulty walking due to the pain, inflammation and swelling 
  • Bleeding 
  • Hair loss

Causes of Scratches in Horses

While there is some belief that scratches are caused by poor hygiene, that is not confirmed.

  • Heavy horses – Draft horses tend to more impacted by this condition than other horses due to the thickness of feathered hair in the area
  • Standardbreds – Are more susceptible to this condition during the wet spring months
  • Mud – Standing ifor long periods of time in mud or muddy stalls can increase the odds of developing this condition
  • Cold – The cold weather can also hurt your horse’s ability to retain moisture and natural oils on his heels and pasterns resulting in the cracking and scabbing over
  • Wind
  • Low humidity – Once again this can result in your horse’s inability to regulate the moisture and oils in his heels and pasterns
  • Frequent bathing
  • Dirty stalls – Bacteria and fungi may proliferate
  • Moisture – Can penetrate your horse’s delicate skin making it susceptible to infection

Diagnosis of Scratches in Horses

The veterinarian consultation will involve a physical evaluation to determine if your horse is experiencing pain or lameness as a result of the condition. The veterinarian may request that you trim the backs of the legs if you haven’t already in order to view the extent of the dermatitis on the pastern and fetlock. The veterinary caregiver may want to take a sample of the tissue if it appears secondary complications like infection have set in. If there is swelling or heat in addition to the skin irritation, more extensive treatment will be warranted.

Treatment of Scratches in Horses

Treatment will be based on how severe of a case of scratches your horse has. Cleaning the area and keeping it clean will be of utmost important. The hair in that area will need to be removed so that the area can properly dry out and be treated. Once the hair is removed, you will need to wash and clean the area on a regular basis. 

When washing the area, if you notice possible signs of infection, use Neosporin or triple antibiotic ointment as prescribed by the veterinarian. Add a thick layer of veterinarian recommended product to protect and provide moisture to the area. A good rule of thumb is to never pick at your horse’s scabs, rather soak them in cleanser for a few minutes or overnight with a prescribed ointment to allow them to fall off on their own.

It will be important to keep your horse’s heels and pasterns dry and clean. It will also be important to not wash the areas affected by scratches more than once a day as this can introduce more moisture and prolong the condition. 

If the case gets bad enough to where your horse experiences cellulitis, veterinarian intervention will be necessary again at that point as this will involve antibiotics and possible cauterization of the areas.

Recovery of Scratches in Horses

This is a condition that works best with prevention and that includes clipping the feathers on your horse’s legs to help allow the area to remain dry and clean. It is also beneficial to always ensure your horse’s legs are rinsed off and dry after any time in mud or dirty areas. Keeping his legs and pastern areas dry and clean will go a long way in avoiding further issues.

Providing your horse with clean and dry stable conditions will also help to avoid further concerns. Your veterinarian will discuss with you (if involved) how long to give antibiotics or treatment. Within a few days (2-5) you should begin to see results and improvement in your horse’s condition. If this does not happen, it will be important to contact your veterinarian and move forward from there.