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What is mud fever and how to treat it

Posted on 14 January 2016 by Kim

How to treat 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 hear it also referred to as “greasy heels” or “cracked heels”.

The horse’s skin provides a home for many foreign bodies such as bacterial organisms, as well as 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 weaken the skin's normal defence to infection and it is this that enables Mud Fever or, Dermatophilus congolensis, as it is known 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 too can 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.

• 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. And Mud Fever cannot invade a 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 B lock Cream is a tough, anti bacterial cream that contains essential oils, aloe vera and zinc. Plus it comes in a lotion as well which is better to use on horses with feathers.

Equimins Mud Block Cream Equimins Mud Block Lotion  

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 repellence. 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. Because Mud Fever is an anaerobic bacteria, ie it cannot survive in the presence of oxygen, 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 antibacterial agent that helps to weaken the effects of harmful bacteria. Work the shampoo in to 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 or even a cotton one 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 Licenced 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 has 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 so 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’s 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. Why not 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 to 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 to 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.

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

  • Vivien posted on September 15 2017 at 06:09 PM

    Pig oil and sulphur by Lincoln works well, you need to apply it early to dry white legs and it prevents it occurring. It also works on existing scabs by softening and helping them lift so does not cause them so much distress when trying to remove the scabs.

  • Julia Snook posted on January 05 2018 at 10:01 PM

    I have one three quarter Arab, one thoroughbred cross Arab and a welsh cob cross Hanoverian. We also have clay! The three quarter Arab and welsh cob cross Hanoverian suffered dreadfully with mud fever. I tried all the lotions and potions with various levels of success. The best was udder cream but they still had some mudfever. Then, quite by accident, I found the best thing was to leave them in their field! I came to the conclusion that bringing them in every night which dried their legs and then turning them out which made their legs wet was doing more harm than good! The constant going in and out of the gateway made it much more muddy and, because they were expecting to be brought in, they milled about in the gateway which made it even muddier! They are well fed and rugged and only brought out to ride and have never looked better! I add linseed to their feeds which keeps their skin supple and less likely to crack. Some people also swear by Turmeric as well, but my horses flatly refused to eat it! I’ve had horses for over 50 years of various breeds, shapes and sizes and mudfever was the bane of my life til I was taken into Hospital and several good friends looked after them but didn’t have time to do all the bringing in, mucking out, creaming etc. I was dreading what I’d find but was very pleasantly surprised and it’s worked for me ever since!

  • 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.

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