Here are five steps to help you recognise, treat and prevent mud fever in horses.
Step 1. Understand what you’re up against
Mud fever is a painful condition that largely attacks the heels and pastern area. It’s the work of an opportunistic bacteria called Dermatophilus congolensis that lives on your horse’s skin. It sites there harmlessly until winter’s wet, muddy conditions weaken the skin and compromise its natural barriers – then, as soon as the bacteria sots a crack or cut, it invades. Mud fever isn’t contagious, but is dependent on the conditions.
Step 2. Learn to recognise the symptoms
If you spot any crusty scabs on your horse’s lower legs – often with a sticky look to the hair caused by serum oozing from the skin – the odds are it’s mud fever, Unlike a case of mites, the scans aren’t usually itchy.
If you gently peel the scabs away you’ll see a ‘paint brush’ effect on the scab, with matted skin still attached to it, while the underside may be wet and oozing. As the condition progresses, the scabs can creep further up the legs and you might get heat and swelling, with the scabs very painful to touch.
Eventually this may lead to a secondary infection, called cellulitis, and the legs can fill.
Step 3. Take preventative steps
It’s comparatively easy to prevent mud fever – you need to reduce the chances of bacterial invasion by protecting your horse’s skin. Do this by limiting his exposure to wet, muddy conditions, and by using a topical barrier cream to boost his skin’s defences.
Products designed to act as a barrier to infection must only be used when you’re certain your horse hasn’t got any mud fever. If he has, and you slap a cream over the top of any scabs, you’re sealing in the bacteria and keeping it nice and moist – just what it likes.
While it appears to make sense to clean your horse’s muddy legs, by hosing him off every day you could be doing more harm than good. Quite often, if all you’re doing is dampening the legs on a regular basis, and then not drying them properly, you’re making matters worse. If your horse’s legs are caked in mud, it’s better to stick some gamgee under stable bandages to wick all the moisture away from the skin. Brush the mud off once the legs are dry. If you do need to wash your horse’s legs every day, use an antibacterial wash.
Step 4. Take action
Mud fever can be very painful, but swift action will ease your horse’s discomfort and help the condition clear. Just follow these steps:
- Get your horse out of the mud and into a dry, comfortable place.
- Thoroughly clean and dry his legs and then clip hair away from the affected area.
- If there are only one or two scabs, apply an antiseptic – Hibiscrub is ideal. Leave it to soak into the skin for 10 minutes before washing off.
- If there are lots of scabs they can be difficult to remove, so vets recommend ‘sweating’ them off.
There are various ways of doing this, you could try Animalintex poultices or wrapping (very loosely) some clingfilm around the legs, then putting gamgee on under a stable bandage. Leave it on for 48 hours in total, changing the dressing every day, and this is normally enough to get rid of the scabs.
If the scabbed area is extensive, the scabs are difficult to remove, or your horse violently objects to having them touched (which many do, especially if they’ve had the condition before), call your vet for advice. It may be safe and more effective for your vet to sedate your horse, and he’ll make sure every scab is fully removed. This is important as the scabs act as a protective shield for the bacteria underneath.
Once all the scabs are removed, leave his legs unbandaged to allow the area to breathe and dry as quickly as possible. The bacteria can survive in the scabs for up to 12 months, so dispose of them carefully!
Keep your horses stabled until the condition’s cleared up – if it doesn’t respond to treatment, talk to your vet as antibiotic-based veterinary creams can be used, together with antibiotics to kill any infection from the inside out.
Step 5. Be prepared
It pays to keep your first-aid kit stocked up with products that will help prevent mud fever, as well as swing into action should the condition strike.
Look for a proprietary brand of mud fever barrier cream that includes zinc oxide along with some type of antiseptic – many contain natural anti-bacterial ingredients, too, such as tea tree oil or eucalyptus.
Anti-bacterial and disinfectant cleansing washes are also useful to have to hand, as are mud fever treatments, which aim to soften the scabs and soothe any soreness and irritation. Usually in the form of creams, lotions, gels or ointments, many contain lanolin to ‘waterproof’ the skin and essential oils, such as tea tree oil, eucalyptus and hazel extracts.