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How To Prevent And Treat Mud Fever - With Product Recommendations From Lily Equestrian

Pastern dermatitis, commonly known as mud fever, is a skin condition that causes irritation and soreness – predominantly to horses’ lower legs. It most often occurs on the bulb of the heel or the pastern (the area between the fetlock and the hoof) but can spread higher up the legs or occasionally appear on other areas of the body. It is not a contagious condition, so cannot be passed from one horse to another, or to people, but can cause your horse a great deal of stress and discomfort.

Common Causes

A healthy horse has many micro-organisms living on their skin, including bacteria and fungus that, under normal circumstances, have no detrimental effect on the horse. However, if the skin is damaged in any way, these micro-organisms can enter through the skin and cause infection.

Mud fever is more common in winter due to potential overexposure to persistent wet and muddy conditions which softens the skin, making it more susceptible to damage. Dermatophilus congolensis – the bacteria that live in soil – also thrive in these conditions, making it a perfect breeding ground.

Abrasions to the skin could be caused by many things that the horses are exposed to in daily life, such as rubbing from boots or bandages, a cut or scratch caused by something in the pasture, or even the mud itself, rubbing against the weakened skin.

Other common causes of mud fever include;

  • Leg mites – otherwise known as Chorioptic mange, these mites cause distress, discomfort and intense itching for the horse, which is often displayed in the form of foot stamping, biting/chewing at the legs. If this is the cause of the mud fever, it will not improve without treatment of the mites as well. For more information, see ‘Diagnosing And Treating Horse Mites (Mange)’.
  • Bedding – some bedding choices can act as an irritant, whether it be physical or chemical (e.g. straw or high ammonia content).
  • Rough surfaces – repeated work in sandy arenas can be detrimental to the skin.
  • Regular leg washing – cleaning legs with water too often not only softens the skin but it removes the grease that acts as a natural barrier against cracking/splitting.

Prevention Techniques

As they always say, ‘prevention is better than cure’. If you know your horse is prone to mud fever, it is essential to take all the preventative steps earlier on so you can, hopefully, avoid it all together.

While bringing your horse in over winter – to get them out of the wet and muddy fields – is a great preventative method, this is not an option for everyone, whether due to lack of facilities, livery yard rules or practicality.

Plenty of horses continue to live out throughout the winter months without displaying symptoms of the condition, leading to the theory that it is not only the mud that causes the problem, but also the constant washing and wetting of the skin. This, as mentioned above, can cause the skin on the legs to soften, increasing the risk of abrasions, and in turn, the likeliness of mud fever taking hold.

Ways of reducing the chance of your horses developing mud fever include;

  • Managing pasture on rotation to help minimise poaching (this could mean restricting access to particularly muddy sections or covering them with straw/ sand, or even changing regular entry/exit points to the field, if possible)
  • Leaving mud to dry naturally before brushing it off, rather than washing legs with water – If legs need to be washed, the skin must be dried thoroughly
  • Clipping feathers where necessary to allow for faster drying
  • Waterproofing your horses’ legs using a barrier cream or turnout boot (as above, only apply to clean, dry legs)

We asked our ambassador, Lily Chandler – better known by her social media name, Lily Equestrian – what products she swears by for the prevention of mud fever...

“For those who own horses who suffer regularly with mud fever, winter can be a total nightmare and keeping it at bay is always a huge challenge.

“The first product I highly recommend is the Woof Wear Mud Fever Turnout Boots. If you’re in the position to, it would be ideal to purchase two pairs, so you can have a pair to use while the other washes and dries. It’s essential to keep the boots (and by extension, the legs) clean and dry, as mud fever thrives off damp and wet conditions.

“Another great product for prevention is Muddy Marvel Barrier Cream from Nettex. This acts as a waterproof type barrier to stop any wet mud clinging to the legs and irritating the skin.

“It’s good to keep an eye on your horses’ legs throughout the winter, even if they have never suffered from mud fever before, as it can appear out of nowhere in horses of all ages. Check them daily, if possible”.

Identification and Treatment

How early the mud fever is noticed is relative to how easy and effective treatment is likely to be. Knowing what to look out for and performing regular checks on your horses will go a long way to managing the condition.

Common signs of mud fever include;

  • Thickening and inflammation of the skin on the pastern or heel
  • Matted areas of hair or hair loss
  • Crusty scabs with lesions beneath them
  • A wet, greasy look to the limb, where a pus-like discharge oozes from affected areas
  • In severe cases, the whole lower limb can become raw and inflamed with heat and swelling

Mild cases of mud fever can usually be treated by you at home, but if your horse has never had mud fever before, it’s always worth double checking with your vet so as to avoid providing the wrong, or an ineffective course of treatment to your horse.

If your horse has feathers, treatment will be much easier if they are clipped, so that may be something you need to consider.

We asked Lily for her tips on treating mild cases of mud fever at home...

“Mud fever can often cause the legs to heat and swell up; don’t be tempted to cold hose them to cool them down. Mud fever thrives in wet conditions and this will only keep you in a frustrating cycle. You need to keep the legs clean and dry. Wet legs offer the perfect environment for the bacteria to breed, so although it is necessary to wash legs clean from mud, if you do not dry them, they will not heal.

“If they have started to scab, gently wash them with Hibiscrub solution (0.1% is recommended) to help soften and remove the scabs, before rinsing with warm, clean water. Towel dry the legs thoroughly and then apply a layer of Udder Cream or Sudocrem. They are brilliant soothers and help to heal the sore areas.

“If the horse has painful scabs, it is advisable to seek some pain relief/anti-inflammatories from your vet, as the healing period can vary from 3 days to 3 weeks, depending on the severity of the mud fever”.

As Lily points out, just the process of removing the scabs can be painful for the horse – in severe cases, sedation may be required – but you should be aware that they will need to be softened and removed in order to help with the healing process. Removal of the scabs exposes the bacteria to oxygen, in the presence of which they cannot survive, whilst increasing the effectiveness of any cleaning processes used on the area.

When drying legs, it’s best to use a clean towel for each leg, to prevent spreading the infection. We advise applying a layer of cream with antibacterial qualities before applying any other kind of moisturising or barrier cream. It can be helpful to leave scabs to soften, so if it’s possible to stable your horse overnight, we suggest covering your layer of barrier cream in a layer of cling film (not so tight that the air can’t still get to it, but tight enough that it won’t come off in the stable) and then gently picking the scabs off in the morning.

The washing and scab removal process should be repeated as necessary, at 3-4 day intervals so as to avoid drying out the skin too much.

For more severe cases, or in instances where you think there may be an underlying cause of mud fever, always consult your vet for the best course of action and a tailored treatment plan.

Genevieve de Lande Long - Horsemart
Horsemart Marketing Team
Published on 06-11-2020
Genevieve is the marketing manager for Horsemart. She'll keep you up to date with all the latest industry news and provide you with helpful guides and advice.