What is scratches?

Scratches, is a term used to refer to a loose conglomeration of diseases, also called pastern dermatitis, dew poisoning, greasy heel or mud fever and can be caused by a variety of skin conditions including  bacterial or fungal infection,

 

parasite infestation, or contact irritants.  It most often occurs in the pastern and fetlock area and can be at best, uncomfortable for the horse and, and at worst, can cause severe pain, bleeding, itchiness, and lameness. Horses in excessively wet or muddy environments are at greater risk of getting scratches and large horses and horses with “feathering” are particularly more susceptible

 

 

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What causes scratches? 

Due to the possibility that scratches can be caused by a variety of skin disorders including bacterial, fungal, contact irritants or parasitic infections it is very challenging to determine the actual cause.  It is commonly believed that exposure to constant moisture coupled with muddy or dirty surroundings, can set the stage for an invasion of bacteria and/or fungi, the most common cause of scratches.  Mild cases are usually treated with removing the horses from the wet environment and treating it with a topical anti-microbial spray such as RESOLVE.  In severe cases, or if the leg becomes hot, swollen and painful, it is recommend to consult with your veterinarian.

What does scratches look like?

The condition usually starts between the fetlock and the heel on the rear legs.  Eventually, if not treated, it may extend around the front of the leg.   Scratches can often go unnoticed in horses with feathers at the back of the pastern.   Typically the first phase of the condition involves a softening of the skin, when the horse resides in a wet or marshy pasture or is confined to a muddy paddock.   As the disease progresses and the skin breaks open, this opens the door for invasion by bacteria, fungus, mites and other agents.  From here a staph infection (staphylococcus aureus) can occur which will cause the crumbly appearance of the skin and which also produces a sweetish odor that is easily detected and can be used in making a diagnosis.   It often becomes chronic and is characterized by continued development of crusty, crumbly, scabby bumps or lesions, that can be painful to remove, and oozing on the surface of the pastern and fetlock.

Lameness may or may not be present.   In the early stages of scratches, there usually is no lameness. As the problem progresses, with the lesions sometimes breaking open and bleeding, there can be soreness to the point that the horse becomes lame. The lameness often is most prominent when the horse is first exercised following a day or night of rest. As the horse continues to flex the pastern, the irritation sometimes lessens and the lameness decreases correspondingly.

The most common mite involved with scratches is the chorioptic mite, a type of mange.   This type of mite is considered skin surface dwellers and feeds on skin debris and scales and in the process may cause irritation to the afflicted area.  Their normal life cycle is about 2 weeks but there have been cases where they have survived for over two months.  These mites can be transmitted between animals through direct contact or indirectly by grooming equipment.

Will scratches go away on its own?

Scratches is a condition that does not go away easily.  Treatment, especially before the condition escalates, is very important.   If you are able to move your horse to a dry area or if the weather remains dry the healing will be accelerated.

What is the recommended treatment for scratches?

Ideally, when possible, the first step is to remove the horse from the wet or muddy environment.  The recommended treatment for scratches is to use a topical spray, that kills both bacterial and fungal infections, such as RESOLVE.  We recommend you apply RESOLVE, once a day, to the infected area and do not remove the scabs.  It is important to saturate the infected area. You should not have to remove the scabs which could possibly irritate your horse.  The scabs should start to fall off with 2 – 3 days when applied daily.  Continue applying daily until you no longer see the problem. RESOLVE works in a wet environment so if you are unable to move the horse to a dry area, the treatment will still work.  Then RESOLVE can be used as a preventative solution during those wet days out in the pasture.  If the infection does not start to improve, after daily applications, in 3 – 4 days, we recommend you contact your veterinarian.

It will not be necessary to shampoo your horse when you use RESOLVE – a real plus in the winter.

It is also recommended to wear gloves when treating this infection.   It is best to assume the infection is zoonotic which is a type of disease able to be passed to humans

Is scratches contagious?  Can humans get scratches from equines?

Since it is difficult to say for sure the cause of scratches ie. bacterial, fungal or parasitic , it is best to assume it is a zoonotic disease (disease that can be transferred to humans) and treat it as such.  Therefore we recommend you use disposable gloves while treating your horse and always wash your hands with an anti-microbial soap as soon as possible.  You should also wash, with an anti-microbial soap, the horses grooming equipment and never use the equipment on another horse.

How can you prevent scratches?

Avoid keeping your horse in muddy or wet areas (this includes fields with tall grass during heavy rains or dew). Keep all boots or wraps clean. Be sure to check your horse’s legs regularly for any signs of redness, flakiness, or irritation, and begin treating the area as soon as you detect a problem. Pay extra attention to horses with feathered legs, since it can be harder to see the skin.  If you cannot remove your horse from a wet environment, apply RESOLVE as a preventative measure.  RESOLVE works in a wet environment.

 

Is scratches painful for the horse?

It can be slightly to very uncomfortable for your horse and if untreated it can result in severe pain, bleeding, and lameness.

In the early stages of scratches, there usually is no lameness. As the problem progresses, with the lesions sometimes breaking open and bleeding, there can be soreness to the point that the horse becomes lame. The lameness often is most prominent when the horse is first exercised following a day or night of rest. As the horse continues to flex the pastern, the irritation sometimes lessens and the lameness decreases correspondingly.

 

Additional resources.

http://www.thehorse.com/articles/10474/dew-poisoning-scratches

http://www.merckvetmanual.com/mvm/musculoskeletal_system/lameness_in_horses/scratches_in_horses.html

http://www.thehorse.com/articles/17703/understanding-scratches