Scratches: Keep this condition from turning chronic

Pasterns often become crusty and scabby when 'mud season' turns paddocks into soupy messes. But left untreated, a simple case of scratches can escalate into a painful, chronic condition.

Scratches is the common term for pastern dermatitis, an inflammation of the skin that develops between the heels and the fetlocks. Affected areas become scabby and crusty, sometimes oozing clear or yellowish serum.

Arnd Bronkhorst image

Usually the result of repeated wetting and drying, scratches develops when bacteria or fungi invade through tiny wounds or cracks in the skin’s surface. Although scratches can occur at any time of year, it is seen more frequently when horses are turned out in wet environments.

You can probably treat scratches on your own, and most cases will clear up quickly with proper care. But if your horse develops persistent or severe scratches you’ll want to seek your veterinarian’s help.

What to do

Rinse your horse’s legs. Move your horse into a dry area and hose off dirt, mud and other debris on his lower legs. You may want to carefully trim the longer hair on his pasterns to better expose the skin to the air.

Cleanse the affected area with an antiseptic wash. Choose a product that contains 2 percent chlorhexidine or benzoyl peroxide, and use it as directed. Avoid products with higher concentrations of these agents because they can further irritate the skin.

Dry the skin thoroughly. You may want to use a hair dryer at a low setting.

Apply an antibiotic ointment. This step isn’t strictly necessary, but in addition to helping to kill bacteria, a thicker ointment may form a protective barrier over the skin.

Repeat as needed. Clean and treat the affected skin every two to three days until the infection clears. Most cases of scratches heal within two weeks.

Address the cause. If your horse developed scratches after spending too much time in wet turnout areas, you may need to find him a drier paddock or pasture. Also consider longer-term solutions, such as laying down gravel in chronically wet areas or taking other steps to improve drainage. It may take some detective work to discover the cause. Scratches may develop when a horse’s skin is chronically irritated by bell boots that don’t fit or environmental conditions such as coarse arena footing. In other cases, the skin is irritated by chemically treated bedding materials.

What NOT to do

Do not use “home remedies” on scratches. Bleach, antifungal sprays meant for plants and other caustic chemicals can injure the skin and make the inflammation much worse.

Do not try to pick off the scabs. They are very painful to the horse, and tugging at scabs may get you kicked. The scabs ought to soften and slough off on their own within a few days as the skin heals.

Call your veterinarian when …

the scratches infection grows worse despite treatment or does not heal within two weeks. Your veterinarian will want to rule out other conditions, such as vasculitis or mange, which can look very similar to scratches. In addition, a prescription medication or a different treatment may be needed if the infection proves to be fungal rather than bacterial in origin.

the affected legs start to swell. If pathogens penetrate the outer layers of the skin, a serious infection of the deeper tissues may result, leading to painful swelling. You’ll want your veterinarian to begin treatment promptly.

the scratches infection recurs persistently, despite treatment and changes in the horse’s living conditions. Some horses are just more prone to scratches. But if yours seems to be constantly affected when others around him are not, your veterinarian will want to investigate the reasons why. One possibility is that your horse has an underlying disorder that affects his immune function.


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