What *not* to do for scratches

For your horse’s sake, resist the urge to try scratches remedies you haven’t heard of before. Many unconventional preparations don't work; others may do more harm than good.

Mention that your horse has scratches and chances are you’ll be inundated with suggestions for homemade remedies from barn friends and internet strangers, with each concoction “guaranteed” to clear up the condition quickly. For your horse’s sake, resist the urge to try something you haven’t heard of before. This is a case where tried-and-true remedies usually work best.

Scratches, also known as pastern dermatitis, occurs when bacteria invade small cracks in the horse’s skin. Once infection takes hold, the tiny cuts begin to ooze and crust over to form hard, painful scabs. You can treat a mild case of scratches yourself, but severe cases may require veterinary attention.

To read more about scratches in horses click here.

The first rule of treating scratches yourself is to leave the scabs alone. Trying to remove them will be extremely painful for the horse is likely to get you injured. Instead, wash the area with a mild soap and then dry it thoroughly—use a hair dryer if your horse doesn’t mind the noise. Then, clip the clean, dry hair over the area and apply a triple-antibiotic ointment, available at any pharmacy or grocery store, directly to the scabs.

For an extra layer of protection, you can slather diaper-rash ointment or a similar emollient over the area. These preparations will sooth and protect the skin as the antibiotic has time to work. If the cleaning, drying and ointment-application process is repeated every other day, most cases of scratches will clear up quickly.

If the leg swells, new scabs appear despite treatment or your horse is lame, it’s time to call the veterinarian. Your horse may need systemic antibiotics or a more thorough cleaning of the affected area under sedation.

What isn’t a good idea is using any preparation, no matter where it’s from, that doesn’t have an ingredients list. This is not a time to try “secret” recipes. Likewise, don’t apply harsh chemicals or anything you wouldn’t put on your own skin. If a treatment you hear about through the grapevine is identifiable and seems benign—sauerkraut, for instance, is a popular homemade scratches treatment—it probably won’t hurt the horse, but it may not help either.

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