What is mud fever and how to treat it

What Is Mud Fever?

It’s perhaps a measure of just how wet our climate is, that discussions about mud fever rage among the equestrian community, along with the fact that despite the best efforts of scientists, there’s still no vaccine for it.

What is Mud Fever?

To give it its proper name, ‘Pastern Dermatitis’, mud fever refers to a whole range of skin reactions to a number of different irritants. You may also hear it referred to as “greasy heels” or “cracked heels”.

The horse’s skin provides a home for many foreign bodies such as bacterial organisms, fungi and other parasites. When the skin is healthy, they don't cause a problem. However if the skin is compromised, the organism is able to enter the horse’s body through the compromised skin. Once inside, the infectious agent known as ‘Dermatophilus Congolensis’, then multiplies in the damp, warm epidermal layers. Its threadlike tentacles spread in all directions from the original entry point. The result is an acute inflammatory reaction.

Under normal circumstances, it lives in soil as “spores” which can actually survive from year to year. However, these spores are activated by wet weather and this is why it’s more common when the ground is wet.

What Causes Mud Fever?

There’s not just one single cause of mud fever. Admittedly it seems to be more common in warm, wet weather but it’s certainly not limited to horses that paddle knee deep in mud! Constant or high moisture content weakens the skin's normal defence to infection and it is this that enables mud fever to penetrate and establish infection.

In the winter, the rain and mud soften and weaken the skin, as does frequent washing off of mud when a horse is brought in from the field. 

Anything which breaks the skin, such as a small cut or wound, can also allow mud fever to invade. 

Genetic factors are considered to be important as well, as some horses never get mud fever, even when turned out in the wettest conditions, while others are affected every year.

Some soil types seem to be predisposed to giving horses mud fever, which may explain why several horses in the same field may get it. 

And it is for some of the causes outlined above, that wet and muddy conditions are not always necessary for mud fever to occur.

Signs of Mud Fever

The signs of mud fever are fairly classic and easy to recognise, with the distribution of the lesions reflecting the areas that have been subjected to continued wetting and trauma.

Signs to look out for:
• Matted areas of hair with crusty scabs
• Small, circular, ulcerated, moist lesions beneath scabs
• Eventual hair loss leaving raw-looking, inflamed skin underneath
• Heat, swelling, and pain on pressure or flexion of limb
• Possible lameness.

As a first step towards prevention, there are a range of ‘off-the-shelf’ potions that you can try. The purpose of these falls in to two categories: Prevention and Treatment.

Prevention

As always, prevention is easier than cure. Mud fever cannot invade healthy skin. So be mindful about how to maintain the healthiness of the skin and not weaken it with moisture. 

A barrier cream like the Equimins Mud Block Cream is a tough, anti-bacterial cream that contains essential oils, aloe vera and zinc. 

Equimins Mud Block Cream   

If you prefer a herbal remedy, there are products with plant extracts, like Hilton Herbs Mud Defender Lotion. You can use this before you turn out or put him in his stable. Although this is not a barrier cream, the oils will provide a layer of water resistance. A lovely-smelling lotion that’s infused with essential oils and propolis which has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.

It's imperative that the legs are clean and dry before application otherwise a barrier cream will merely trap the moisture in.

Hilton Herbs Mud Defender Lotion    Hilton Herbs Mud Defender Lotion    Hilton Herbs Mud Defender Lotion

Treatment

There’s a wide variety of lotions and potions marketed for the treatment of mud fever, but none of these are “the silver bullet” to a magic solution that will solve all your woes. Rather, they should be used as part of a range of measures that limit exposure to wet conditions, reduce bacterial numbers, and protect the skin's natural defences.

Shampoo

Treatment often starts with washing the area, particularly where the tiny scabs are. The bacteria are thought to live within these scabs and therefore removing them will remove bacteria. Mud fever is an anaerobic bacteria, i.e. it cannot survive in the presence of oxygen, so scab removal allows oxygen to bathe the affected area.

Invest in a proper medicated shampoo. Lincoln’s Muddy Buddy Scrub contains a powerful, broad-spectrum anti-bacterial agent that helps to weaken the effects of harmful bacteria. Work the shampoo into a lather and leave for 5-10 minutes to expose the bacteria to oxygen. Rinse the area until it's no longer soapy and the water runs clear. Dry the leg thoroughly with a clean towel, ideally a disposable paper towel for each leg as one towel can reintroduce or spread the infection. 

Lincoln Muddy Buddy Scrub  Lincoln Muddy Buddy Scrub

Cream

For those of you that like a tried-and-tested, traditional potion, Hydrophane’s Protocon Gold is probably the potion for you. A licensed veterinary medicinal cream, it contains sulphur BP that has cleansing, anti-bacterial properties and salicylic acid, which is an anti-inflammatory agent.

Hydrophane Protocon Gold

Powder

Major developments in mud fever products have been made by Lincoln, whose Muddy Buddy Magic Mud Kure products offer a miracle cure for this debilitating condition. Their products are scientifically proven to kill the bacteria responsible for mud fever. The powder can be used in the early stages when the sores are really sensitive. Squirting it on prevents the need to touch the area. Once an improvement is apparent, treatment should be continued with the Muddy Buddy Mud Kure Cream. Both contain Metalosan 47, a silver complex, which is known to promote healing.

Lincoln Muddy Buddy Magic Mud Kure Powder   Lincoln Muddy Buddy Magic Mud Kure Cream

Brush

Those opposed to washing can brush the mud off, but only when it has dried. Even with this, care needs to be taken not to aggravate the infected area.  

Other Options

The products in this article are just a few of the products we offer to combat mud fever. Visit our Mud Fever Help Centre to see our full selection of products that prevent and treat mud fever.

And Finally...

While most cases can be resolved, some weakness may remain, leaving a tendency towards re-infection. The infection can stay dormant in skin, only becoming active when the skin is compromised again. So be vigilant! The sooner you spot the first tell-tale signs of mud fever, the quicker you can take action and  prevent a lengthy, and often costly, recovery.

Did you find this article helpful?

Read our other article on how to protect your horse from mud.

 Mud fever Help Centre

Author

Kim Horton

Co-Founder of EQUUS and a keen equestrian, when Kim's not at her desk she's with her horse, Waldo.

Comments

  • Shirley leigh posted on February 23 2018 at 08:02 AM

    I have a cross cob with white legs, he goes out with a herd. He’s the only one with mud fever. We have treated him with udder cream it’s worked wonders.

  • Julia Snook posted on December 17 2018 at 04:12 PM

    Can anyone tell me the correct amounts of the Turmeric and Linseed regime for the prevention of mud fever? I’ve gradually introduced it over the summer because the Turmeric is definitely an acquired taste! In fact my 22yr old Welsh cob cross Hanoverian still thinks I’m trying to poison him-so much so that I mix his feed with the Linseed first because if he gets the slightest whiff of Turmeric he won’t come near me let alone eat his feed! Luckily, the other two will eat it and they’re the ones that need it, the cob having access to a stable. I give the other two 2 heaped dessert spoons of Linseed and one of Turmeric twice daily. I’d be grateful for any advice. I’ve owned horses for 50 years but never had to deal with clay! The one who suffers worst is my gorgeous palomino 3/4 Arab 14.2. Last winter despite the Turmeric and Linseed and being plastered with udder cream, pig oil and sulphur, muddy marvel, muddy buddy, zinc and castor oil etc from the knees and hocks down, he still lost all the hair offf his legs-it’s all grown back now and luckily he never had the classic scabs etc of mud fever but I prefer him with hairy legs! He has got more sensitive skin than his friend my bay thoroughbred cross Arab-even though she suffers with sweet itch, because he has to have his pink nose well sunblocked in the summer and I spose being at least a hand smaller than the other two, he’s nearer the ground and therefore nearer the dreaded mud!

  • Ricada collins posted on February 12 2019 at 05:02 PM

    What works for my old boy , is washing every three days with hibi scrub and then rubbing in conotrane cream ( which is used for nappy rash)

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