Autumn has arrived and with it the first gales and heavy rain; the promise of things to come during the next six months. Despite a long, dry summer fields are already becoming muddy and it won’t be long before the first cases of mud-fever appear. Forewarned is forearmed and this article explains how to prevent mud-fever developing and how to deal with it should your horse succumb.
Causes of mud fever
Mud fever is caused by a mixture of bacteria, usually Dermatophilus congolensis and staphylococcus and can also be caused by fungal organisms called dermatophytes which are found in some soil types. When horses are standing outside in cold, wet conditions the skin of the lower limbs (typically the back of the pasterns) can become chapped and split, allowing the bacteria to enter and causing irritation and dermatitis.
Horses with white socks and therefore pink skin are particularly susceptible. If left untreated, the skin becomes inflamed and this can lead to infection which is extremely painful and notoriously difficult to treat.
Signs of mud-fever
Look out for matted areas of hair with crusted, scabby areas and small ulcerated lesions beneath. When scabs are removed, they will typically have a concave underside through which hairs protrude. The skin of the affected area often becomes thickened and deeply fissured. Thick, yellowy or greenish discharge will appear between the skin and the scab.
Eventually, the hair will fall out leaving raw, inflamed skin beneath. The affected limb will feel hot and there will be pain on flexion or application of pressure to the area. The horse may become lame and if severely affected, may appear depressed, lethargic and reluctant to eat.
It’s important to remove the horse from the wet, muddy area as soon as possible. The skin should be kept clean and dry and it’s usually necessary to stable the horse during treatment. In order to treat the causal organisms which live beneath the scabs, it’s necessary to lift them which can be extremely painful for the horse. Poulticing to soften the scabs before you try to get them off usually works well but if your horse is particularly sensitive; you may have to have him sedated.
Once the area is free of scabs you’ll need to clip away as much hair as possible. Wash the skin using a mild disinfectant, iodine wash or surgical scrub being careful to rinse it off completely. Make sure the area is thoroughly dried then apply a suitable cream which your vet will prescribe; bandaging the limb after treatment can be an effective way of keeping it clean but should only be done if it’s completely dry underneath.
The whole process will have to be repeated several times and bad cases can take weeks to clear up completely. Sometimes, the condition will not disappear until the wet weather is over and the fields have completely dried out.
Unfortunately, severe cases can leave the skin weakened which predisposes the horse to recurrent attacks of the condition. I had a horse who suffered with mud fever every winter; the condition only disappearing completely once the spring grass was through and the mud had dried up.
The only sure way of preventing the condition is to avoid turning susceptible horses out on wet, muddy fields or restricting their turn out time. Use electric fencing to cordon off muddy areas and gateways.
Make sure you wash the legs thoroughly with warm water and medicated shampoo each time the horse has been out and dry them thoroughly. Applying a barrier cream to clipped-out heels can be effective to keep water and mud out. Waterproof leg wraps can also be effective.
Mud-fever is preventable and relatively easily treatable if you remain vigilant and deal with it as soon as any signs become apparent. If possible, rotate your fields and avoid turning horses out on very wet areas.
Image credit: horse&hound
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