Q&A: Prevent urine scald

Head off urine scald with a few simple changes to your horse’s daily routine.
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Head off urine scald with a few simple changes to your horse’s daily routine.

Q: My boy Daryl has a nasty case of scald on the front of both hind cannon bones. The veterinarian says it is because he splatters his legs when he stales, and he gave me a shampoo that didn’t do much good. What else can I do?

A: How great to hear someone use the term “stales.” It brings back memories of the great horsemen of my youth! For those not familiar with the word, it means “urinate.”

Healthy adult horses don’t often get urine scald---irritation and scabbing caused when urine splashes onto the skin. If Daryl’s skin problem is truly scald, the first step is to rule out a urinary disorder as well as possibly a physical issue that prevents him from stretching out fully when he urinates. But given that you’ve already spoken to your veterinarian about this problem, I am going to assume your horse was examined and he is OK.

Next, I would wonder about his bedding. Urine is more likely to splash farther when it falls onto harder ground. If you can give him deeper bedding in his stall, so that the urine no longer splashes onto his skin, he should heal quickly. I know this may be harder than it sounds, especially if you are boarding or if he avoids staling in his stall.

If that doesn’t work, the next step is to apply a protectant to the skin that is getting splashed. Petroleum jelly or zinc oxide ointment (diaper rash medicine) forms a coating that protects the skin and encourages healing. Gently clean and dry the affected areas, and then keep a thick layer of ointment in place at all times. You should see improvement in two to three weeks. If Daryl is in an environment where he is going to continue splashing on himself, you may need to keep applying the ointment indefinitely.

If Daryl’s skin worsens or does not improve with treatment over the course of a month or so, it may be time to call your veterinarian back out. Many skin problems can look alike, so it is easy to misdiagnose something on a first visit. A second examination, perhaps with a biopsy or other diagnostic tests, may be needed.

For example, cannon keratosis, a form of oily seborrhea0, can easily be mistaken for urine scald. This thick, greasy dermatitis is more common in geldings and stallions, but it sometimes happens in mares, and it can be really pesky to wipe out. In this case, you need the prescription shampoo from your veterinarian, or a Betadine scrub, to break up the greasy coating and kill the bacteria underneath. This takes a long time to get under control, but it is not really painful or harmful in most horses. The key is to be persistent and gentle so that you don’t damage the skin as you treat the greasy crusts.

Good luck with caring for Daryl’s skin. It can be a challenge to get to the bottom of this kind of problem, but some perseverance in treatment can do a lot of good!

Melinda Freckleton, DVM, Haymarket Veterinary Service, Gainesville, Virginia

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #457, October 2015.