What is mud fever?
The term can be used to refer to a wide range of skin conditions, properly known as pastern dermatitis. It can be caused by a variety of bacteria, which thrive in muddy, wet conditions. The infection can stay dormant in the horse’s skin and only become active when the surface is compromised, usually by prolonged exposure to wet conditions.
If a horse does get mud fever, the signs you may see are quite distinctive and include matted areas of skin containing crusty scabs, with lesions beneath. There is often a thick discharge between the skin and the overlying scab.
You may also notice heat and swelling, with the horse reacting to pressure or flexion of the affected limb. Eventually, hair loss can leave inflamed, raw-looking skin which may split open at the back of the leg in severe cases, creating the horizontal fissures characteristic of cracked heels.
It’s important to be sure that it is mud fever you’re dealing with so if your horse hasn’t had it before, call your vet so you can be certain your horse is receiving the correct treatment. If you know your horse is prone to mud fever, it’s important to keep their legs as dry as possible.
Try to prevent your paddock from getting badly churned up, as the bacteria are transmitted in the soil. If it’s possible, changing the point at which you enter the field and moving water troughs regularly can be helpful. You could also cover particularly muddy areas with straw or sand.
Prevention is better than cure, but treating mud fever at the earliest possible sign should mean that any infection will clear up quickly and easily. It’s important to remain vigilant and check your horse’s legs daily.
How do you treat mud fever?
If your best efforts don’t succeed and your horse does get mud fever, it’s still really important to try to keep their legs dry. You’ll need to wash the affected leg(s) with a warm, very dilute Hibiscrub solution – 0.1% solution is recommended – and rinse it off fully with warm, clean water.
Make sure you do use warm water to wash the affected areas (never cold) and never put neat Hibiscrub directly on to your horse’s skin. After washing and rinsing, you need to dry the area thoroughly. This can be challenging in horses with thick feathers so you may have to consider clipping them out to tackle the mud fever successfully.
Once your horse’s legs are clean and dry, apply a thick coat of barrier cream, ideally antibacterial, to the affected area. There are various creams available so speak to your vet about which one would be best for your horse. Remember: always test a small patch of skin with the cream for 24 hours first. You need to be sure your horse won’t react to any of the ingredients.
If you can stable your horse at night, cover the layer of barrier cream (carefully and not too tightly) in cling film. Then apply a stable bandage over the top and ensure your horse has clean, dry bedding. Leave the cream, cling film and bandages in place overnight to help loosen the scabs.
In the morning you can then gently pick the scabs away, removing as much as possible. Be careful when doing this as the area can be very sore and it’s quite possible that your horse won’t like it. Apply another thick layer of the barrier cream, without any cling film or bandages, before turning your horse out for the day. The barrier cream will help to prevent the infection getting worse and encourage healing where the scabs have come away.
Keep repeating this process until you’ve managed to remove all the scabs. At that stage, you can then leave the area clean, dry and exposed to the air overnight. It’s best to continue using a barrier cream during turnout until the area has healed completely.
If you can’t stable your horse overnight when trying to treat mud fever, you won’t be able to use cling film and bandages to soften the scabs. If that’s the case, you’ll still need to wash and dry the area thoroughly on a regular basis. You should then gently remove any scabs you can and apply a fresh layer of barrier cream each time.
Make sure you don’t reapply the barrier cream over the top without using a warm dilute Hibiscrub wash and removing the scabs. Doing that would simply create an environment the mud fever can thrive in.
Key points for successfully treating mud fever
- The earlier you spot any infection the easier and quicker it should be to treat – so check your horse’s legs daily for signs
- Keeping your horse’s legs dry is vital to treating mud fever successfully
- Clipping out feathery legs will make it much easier to treat the problem
- Make sure you use a warm dilute (0.1%) Hibiscrub solution to wash the affected area, rinse it fully with warm, clean water and dry it thoroughly
- Removing scabs is key to starting the healing process
- Effective use of a barrier cream prevents further infection and encourages healing
- If in any doubt, call your vet!