Mud Fever Explained – Equine Winter Health
written by Jennifer McAloon
Mud fever is a common condition amongst all equines caused mainly by the prolonged wet and muddy ground, during the winter months. Mud fever can be very painful on the horse’s part, so as horse owners it is our responsibility to try and take preventative action against it and also be aware of the symptoms to ensure that if our equine friend does get mud fever, we are able to treat them promptly.
Horses that live out and those who work in wet conditions are more susceptible to mud fever
There are many causes for mud fever. Originally it was thought that a single bacterium, Dermatophilus congolensis, was the only cause for the condition. However, it has now been researched that various other bacteria and fungi such as Staphylococcal and Streptococci also have an influence on the condition which creates the wide base of symptoms. The meaning of this is that there are many different grades of mud fever and this is dependant on the levels of each different bacterial and fungal element. For example a horse that has mud fever with higher levels of Staphylococcal bacteria, will experience more inflammation and pain than a horse which may have higher levels of Dermatophilus bacteria, which is less painful.
All of these bacteria and fungi are able to affect the horse through damaged skin. The skin can become damaged through standing in the wet ground, which causes a breakdown of the epidermis (the skin) allowing the infection into the area. Mud fever is found in the lower limbs of the horse, however can be found along the horse’s back and hindquarters in the form of rain scald. Equines with white legs (pigmented skin) or hairless pasterns (lighter breeds such as the Thoroughbred) are prone to the condition due to having exposed skin however heavier breeds can also be susceptible due the environment the extra hair creates which leads to ideal conditions for the bacteria growth and is often not always noticed as quickly as those horses with less feather.
Once the infection has found its way into the lower limb, various symptoms may occur which are dependent on the grade of mud fever. Symptoms include matted hair with small crusty scabs, heat, swelling and pain. Some of the scabs may also have moist lesions underneath and may also have a thick, creamy discharge lying between the skin and the scab. If the condition is left untreated, infected area will become sore and eventually hair loss will occur leaving raw, inflamed skin. In severe cases, you may see lameness and also a loss in appetite or depression.
Treating Mud Fever
Treating mud fever is not for the light hearted as it isn’t simple. The best treatment is to find out what bacteria or fungi the condition has been caused by in your equine friend. From there, the vet will be able to advise you on which cream will be able to help battle the infection. However, for all cases of mud fever, the most important part of the treatment is to keep the infected area clean and dry which may mean your horse will have to be stabled for a while. If the horse has lesions underneath the scabs and discharge, the next step is to try and penetrate the scabs to be able to get to the infection underneath. Depending on how tough the scabs are, you may need to poultice or soak them.
For easier treatment, the area should be clipped and thoroughly washed. It is vital that the area is dry before applying any prescribed creams otherwise the cream will act as a barrier to the moisture allowing the infection to thrive even more. Bandages may be used to keep the limb dry, however the affected area must be dry before putting bandages over the top otherwise you may potentially be trapping the moisture in again. Treatment may take up to a few weeks and can be hard work. Your horse may be in a lot of pain so be careful of his reactions to your treatment.
Prevention is better than cure
Don’t fancy your friend having mud fever again or don’t want to even risk it? Well, there are some preventative measures you can take to help ensure that your horse is less likely to catch this painful condition.
- If your horse is stabled overnight or even stabled all the time, ensure that the bed is clean and dry.
- A wet, dirty bed is the same conditions as being stood out in the wet, muddy field
- Avoid over washing horse’s legs or over-grooming as this may cause damage to the skin making it more likely for infection to penetrate
- You could also consider using a topical cream or bandages to protect your horse’s limbs whilst he is turned out. Either way, the skin must be dry before anything is applied otherwise you are risking trapping moisture against the skin allowing perfect conditions for the infection to start.
Another preventative measure would be to have good grass management in the field. Things such as fencing off boggy areas of the field so that your horse doesn’t stand in it would help reduce the risk of mud fever. Rotating fields is also helpful as this will avoid poaching. Poaching occurs when your horse eats the grass in a field until there is none left causing bare patches. These bare patches then turn into boggy mud during the winter months creating ideal conditions for the bacteria (that cause mud fever) to thrive.
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