By: Katie Jones, CVT
With the endless moisture this year, the horse-care watch list seems to grow; one of the items on this list should be scratches.
So what is scratches? From The Merck Veterinary Manual. “Scratches is a chronic, seborrheic (flaky skin) dermatitis characterized by hypertrophy (enlargement of the skin cells) and exudation (oozing) on the caudal (rear) surface of the pastern and fetlock. It often is associated with poor stable hygiene, but no specific cause is known. Heavy horses are particularly susceptible (potentially because their feathered legs trap dirt and moisture), and the hind limbs are affected more commonly.” Scratches is a relatively common skin disease located on the horse’s heels and pastern. It can be caused by viral, bacterial, fungal, or parasitic infections. Although bacterial and fungal organisms are involved in the development of scratches, exposure to wet and dry conditions damages the skin allowing the infection to thrive. This damage causes an invasion of bacteria or fungi and the skin becomes red, swollen, or ulcerated.
Mild cases usually respond to cleaning and topical medication treatments. If the leg becomes hot, swollen, or painful, the infection has become more severe and a veterinarian should be contacted. Regardless of the severity of the infection, horses should be removed from the wet environment. Any feathers or hair in the infected area should be clipped to prevent mud and moisture from lingering around the damaged area. Once the area has been cleaned and the hair removed, the area can be washed with an antibacterial soap such as a Betadine scrub. If scabs have developed, soaking the area to soften the scabs lessening the irritation of cleaning them off. It is best to clean the area only once a day to limit the amount of moisture the leg is exposed to. If an at-home cleaning doesn’t resolve the episode, a veterinarian can prescribe a topical cream containing an anti-fungal, a steroid, and antibiotics to promote healing. The area will be understandably sore, so use caution when cleaning.
Most cases of scratches will resolve with the above treatment course. To prevent a re-occurrence, try to keep horses out of muddy or wet pastures. During times of increased moisture, watch legs for any signs of redness or irritation and begin treatment at the first signs. If scratches becomes a chronic issue with your horse, contact a veterinarian for the best prevention and treatment course.