What is mud fever and how do I treat it?
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.
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 Nettex Equine Muddy Marvel Barrier Cream provides waterproof, breathable and antibacterial protection against wet and muddy conditions.
If you prefer a herbal remedy, there are products with plant extracts, like Botanica Natural Herbal Antiseptic Cream Tub. With a unique blend of natural herbal ingredients, this moisturising cream is an effective soothing treatment, offering relief from mud fever. It helps to keep the skin texture smooth and supple, and reduces inflammation.
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.
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.
For those of you that like a tried-and-tested, traditional potion, Hydrophane's Protocon Ointment is probably the potion for you. This thick, heavy duty cream creates a strong, water resistant barrier whilst relieving and cleansing the skin.
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.
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.
The products in this article are just a few of the products we offer to combat mud fever. Visit our Mud Fever Range to see our full selection of products that prevent and treat mud fever.
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.