Learn More about "Scratches" and How to Protect Your Horse
Your friend at the boarding stable just mentioned that her horse has "scratches." What exactly is she talking about? Should you be concerned since your horse is kept at the same location?
Scratches is one form of a skin condition that is clinically known as equine pastern dermatitis (EPD). Signs include inflamed skin and thick scabs. A more severe form of EPD, distinguished by hard, excessively granulated clusters of tissue, is called "grapes."
"Dermatitis, by definition, is inflammation of the skin, which is recognized by reddening, flaking, crusting or swelling of the region. The condition is usually painful and may result in lameness of the affected limbs," notes Amanda L. Hanafi, DVM, MADS, a veterinarian with Peterson Smith Equine Hospital & Complete Care in Ocala, Florida, one of the Southeast's largest equine clinics.
Despite the name, this condition is not limited to the back of the pastern or heel, although it typically starts in these areas. If left untreated it may progress to other parts of the leg, including the fetlock and cannon bone.
In addition to "scratches," this skin condition may be referred to as "dew poisoning," “mud fever," "greasy heel" or "cracked heels."
What causes scratches?
While it's not "contagious," this common, but frustrating, skin condition can be caused by certain organisms and, in some cases, parasites, such as mites.
"Regardless of location or time of year, a wet environment promotes the condition, such as turnout in a muddy paddock or wet bedding," notes Hanafi.
Horses may be at risk for scratches if:
- their stalls or turnout areas are damp and muddy
- their lower legs remain wet and dirty
- they have feathering or heavy hair on their lower legs
- they have white areas on their legs
"Horses with long hair over the pasterns are more susceptible due to the hair harboring moisture and dirt that continuously irritates the skin," explains Hanafi. "Long hair also provides a good environment for parasitic mites that usually cause significant pruritis, or itching."
Non-pigmented skin can be more vulnerable to scratches because it is generally more prone to sun damage and abrasions that may increase the risk of skin infection.
Although non-pigmented skin is more susceptible, it isn’t only white legs that are affected by scratches. Pigmented skin can also be affected.
Signs of scratches
Scratches is common in draft horses because of the feathering on their lower legs, but the skin condition can occur in any breed. Hind legs are affected more often than front legs, but any leg can be afflicted.
The crusty lesions can be very painful, and some horses will exhibit lameness.
Groom your horse regularly to remove mud and dirt and check his legs frequently for early signs of infection. Contact your veterinarian if you notice any of the following:
- edema (fluid swelling under the skin)
- reddened skin
- scaling or crusty patches on skin
- ·oozing areas
- matted hair
- sensitivity to touch in affected area
- soreness, lameness
Treatment of scratches
"Early detection and treatment is important to help prevent the development of complicating secondary infection and chronic change to your horse’s skin," says Hanafi.
Standard treatment for horses with this condition entails keeping your horse’s legs clean and dry, often incorporating the use of medicated shampoos or topical treatments as prescribed by your veterinarian," she notes.
After examining the horse and diagnosing the condition, your veterinarian will likely advise washing the affected
area(s) with a medicated shampoo, like Aloedine® Medicated Shampoo. This will make it easier to soften and remove the hard scabs, but don't scrub the area or pick the scabs off. Your veterinarian can explain the best way to remove them,
so the area is clean and ready for treatment.
"Clipping the hair and towel drying the legs will facilitate healing," adds Hanafi.
Your veterinarian will typically recommend treatment with an antibacterial and/or antifungal topical cream. A topical product like PuriShield™ Wound and Skin Spray may be useful to encourage healing. Depending on the severity of the condition, antibiotics and steroids may also be given.
"In severe cases with complicating secondary infections, treatment with systemic medications such as antibiotics and anti-inflammatories may be indicated," says Hanafi. "Based on results of diagnostic tests, antifungal medications or deworming may be incorporated into treatment."
"Managing your horse’s environment is a key component to preventing the condition," says Hanafi.
Fortunately, horse owners can do a great deal to protect against this painful skin condition, including:
"Paying attention to your horse’s condition is the best prevention, which should include daily inspection of your horse’s skin. Knowing what your horse’s skin normally looks like will help you pick up on abnormalities that develop," advises Hanafi.
"Keep a regular schedule with your veterinarian and let him or her know if concerns arise. The same applies for other body systems — eyes, ears, heart rate, temperature, body condition, eating and manure habits, etc."
Clean, dry conditions combined with good grooming and regular observation will go a long way toward avoiding scratches in the first place or preventing a reoccurence.
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