Mud fever or pastern dermatitis as it is officially known is one of the worst winter perils for horses and ponies – and not just those that live out 24/7.
What causes mud fever?
It’s an evil little bacteria known as Dermatophilus congolensis. What’s that then we hear you ask…? Well, it behaves like both a bacteria and a fungi and thrives in the conditions caused by wet weather and muddy fields which leads to softening of the skin around the legs and feet which then makes it susceptible to infection by the organism that causes mud fever. When the skin is permanently wet, the bacteria takes hold and infects the area.
What does mud fever look like?
Well, it looks like the photo above – a sore, red , crusty area usually covered in dozens of tiny scabs with matted hair, which can be easily picked off. The skin underneath is usually pink and inflamed and there may be some pus beneath the scabs when they are removed. The leg can swell secondary infections get involved and this can cause lameness and stiffness. The legs will also become very painful to touch. This is known as cellulitis.
Are some horses more susceptible?
Yes – your horse or pony can be unlucky and get it regularly – those with steep sided heels and a deep groove between the heel bulbs can be more affected. As can horses that are turned out in fields with poor drainage and muddy gateways. Horses with thick coats and large feathers are more prone to mud fever too as their hair keeps the moisture close to the skin providing an ideal environment for the bacteria to live in. Some say that horses with white legs are also more susceptible.
How can I prevent mud fever?
Prevention is better than cure! and the key to success is keeping your horse’s legs as dry as possible. So, here are the vet’s top tips…
- Try to rest the temptation to clean and scrub your horse’s legs after turnout or exercise, and if you do so, pat them dry with a disposable towel
- If possible try to rotate your paddocks to avoid poaching and fence off gateways to prevent horses standing in mud for long periods of time
- Consider using waterproof leg wraps for turnout, or alternatively apply a thin layer of barrier cream such as Vaseline, tea tree oil, zinc & castor oil to vulnerable areas – but make sure legs are DRY before you do so otherwise you will simply trap the damp in and create a perfect environment for bacteria growth!
- Ensure bedding is clean, dry and non-irritant at all times and if possible, bring your horse in at night to allow them time to dry off
- Never share boots or bandages with other horses that suffer from mud fever as this will cause the bacteria to spread
Can I treat mud fever?
Yes you can – and the sooner you act the better!
1) Clip the affected area so the skin can dry out. The organism grows better with a lack of oxygen so allowing the air to the skin will help to treat the mud fever quicker.
2) Remove scabs – Wash with an antimicrobial and antibacterial shampoo, such as Malaseb®, lather, allow to stand for 10 minutes before rinsing and then dry thoroughly with a clean towel or paper towel. In milder cases the affected area can be cleaned with dilute Hibiscrub® solution. Continue once daily for 1 week.
3. Remove soft scabs – to do this cover the area in a cleansing ointment e.g. Dermisol® then cover with cling film and apply a stable bandage. Leave on for 12 hours / overnight and then wash as described above. The scabs will have softened and will be easier to remove.
DO NOT PICK OFF THE DRY SCABS – YOU WILL LEAVE AN OPEN WOUND WHICH WILL BECOME INFECTED
3) Apply an antibacterial cream to the affected area twice daily to encourage healing until the mud fever has gone or you could try applying a silver impregnated dressing and bandage. When improved then apply antibacterial cream until the skin has completely healed.
Good luck mud-fighters!