SCRATCHES: the What, the Why, and the How

What are Scratches?

pastern with scratches

The name Scratches is easily replaced by “mud heel” “greasy heel”, or “mud fever”. Essentially, Scratches is the inflammation of the skin on the pastern due to being wet, dirty, and exposed to all those microbes that come from being wet and dirty. There are a lot of microbes and fungi that live on your horse’s feet and legs, and when they get in the bloodstream they cause big problems.

Scratches can start out pretty innocently as scabby skin, but can travel up the cannon bone and cause severe inflammation and lameness. And because there isn’t a singular cause of scratches it’s essential that the problem is treated right away so it doesn’t become chronic and cause bigger issues. If it doesn’t get treated right away, the infection becomes worse and the skin becomes thick, crusty, and scarred, you horse may spike a fever and could be very lame.

Why do horses get scratches?

hooves in mudThe “why” is pretty simple. Horses legs and feet get wet more often than the rest of their bodies and also take longer to dry, especially when their hair is longer. The legs and feet are also more prone to getting scraped or nicked as they play and work. Sand rings, grass fields, dirty stalls (and even clean stalls) cover legs with tons of different infectious agents, and pasterns are a perfect place for bacteria to grow and fester. So then, when a horse breaks the skin with a bug bite, scrape, or nick, that bacteria has a chance to then enter the bloodstream and skin.

How are scratches treated?

Depending on the severity of the infection, there are different treatment tracks.

If your horse has a fever and swollen legs, your vet will prescribe antibiotics and topical treatments / ointments like Wound Wonder or Fungisol. You will need to treat the Scratches constantly (as described below) and monitor your horse’s fever and soundness.

With smaller cases of Scratches (IE: you’ve noticed a few scabby bumps), take action right away. Shampoo the leg, gently remove the scabs (but do not cause bleeding), and dry the legs completely with towels or a hair dryer. You may want to apply topical treatments as well.

The most important thing to remember is that these infections are persistent, so you must be persistent as well. Keep the legs as clean and dry as you can. If that means washing and drying and treating the legs every day, than do it. Scratches will come back quickly, so we recommend several weeks of preventative treatment even once the symptoms are gone.

How are scratches prevented?

With scratches, prevention is key.

  1. If it is a damp season (winter/spring), or you’re bathing your horse a lot (summer), always keep an eye out and clean and dry your horse’s legs every time you touch them.
  2. Every time you pick your horse’s hooves, take some time to make sure the pasterns are clean and dry.
  3. In the damp seasons (winter/spring), pay extra attention to grooming and drying your horse’s legs.
  4. If your horse has a wound on his leg, treat it carefully, keep it clean and dry, and change the bandages as often as possible.
  5. After a bath or hose, take extra time to dry the legs completely. Do NOT just put your horse in his stall if he is wet, especially if he is prone to Scratches.
  6. Do NOT share brushes with others and disinfect/ wash your brushes and tools as much as needed to stop re-infecting your horse.

The more you do every day to prevent Scratches the less likely you’ll end up doing the hard and long work of treating Scratches. A little goes a long way!