The winter weather is with us, our horses’ coats have changed from sleek to furry and our paddocks from green to muddy. Skin problems are more common in the winter months when conditions are cold, wet, muddy and keeping horses clean and dry becomes a major challenge. Mud fever is the most common skin problem. Nettex Vet Becky Lees explains what mud fever is, how we can treat it and crucially how it can be prevented.
What is mud fever?
Mud fever is a bacterial skin infection affecting the lower legs caused by the bacteria Dermatophilus congolensis. The bacteria are unable to enter normal skin, however if skin is weakened through prolonged wetting, or damaged by a cut, rub, or trauma then the bacteria can enter and multiply starting an infection. White skin tends to be more sensitive, so is easier for the bacteria to get in.
Standing in muddy, wet conditions will weaken horses’ skin and provide these bacteria with the five star accommodation and conditions that they need to survive and breed, which is why when mud fever starts it can quickly worsen.
What are the signs of mud fever?
Mud fever is usually easily recognised as hair becomes matted and contains oozing, crusty yellowy scabs, which when removed have moist lesions underneath. There may also be a thick, creamy, white or yellow discharge. Mud fever causes an acute inflammatory reaction, so the skin will be reddened and warm.
Mud fever affects just the lower limbs. Rain scald is caused by the same bacteria and the symptoms are very similar, however the back and flanks are affected rather than the legs.
How can mud fever be treated?
Mud fever bacteria live under the scabs, as they need warm, moist conditions to breed. This means that to treat mud fever we need to start by gently removing the scabs. The legs then need to be dried, use paper towel to do this so that it can be thrown away and you won’t risk re-infecting your horse’s legs. An antibacterial formula can then be used to help get rid of the mud fever bacteria. Your horse needs to be kept in clean, dry conditions and this process repeated daily until the mud fever has cleared up.
Mud fever bacteria can’t survive in clean, dry conditions, so with cleaning and a few days out of the wet the condition should quickly clear up. If mud fever is very severe or doesn’t resolve with simple treatment your vet should examine your horse.
The Two-step Muddy Marvellous Solution to maintaining healthy skin:
Step 1: Nettex Muddy Marvel De-Scab
- Unique formula to soften scabs for easy removal.
- Cleanses the skin & does not harm healthy tissue.
Step 2: Nettex Muddy Marvel Disinfect
- A powerful antibacterial formula designed to sanitise exposed areas in muddy conditions.
- Instantly sanitises the skin and dries rapidly.
How can you prevent mud fever?
Mud fever can be prevented by keeping your horse clean and dry and treating any cuts and grazes as soon as they occur. However, we don’t live in a perfect world, so most horses are exposed to muddy and wet conditions over winter.
The key to preventing mud fever is to prevent prolonged mud contact, minimise skin trauma and maintain healthy skin & a healthy immune system.
Preventing prolonged mud contact
Where horses are turned out in wet and muddy conditions paddock boots can be used to protect the legs from mud. However, they need careful attention to prevent rubbing and skin trauma. Instead use Nettex Barrier Cream which helps protect skin from mud and also has antibacterial and moisturising properties to keep skin supple and in great condition.
The next generation of protection from mud are barrier sprays. Nettex Seven Day Mud Away acts in the same way as a barrier cream, but is easier to apply. Nettex Seven Day Mud Away prevents mud sticking to the coat allowing quick removal by simple brushing. Application is required only once a week and it provides an effective barrier against mud meaning less washing of legs in the winter and making management much simpler.
Maintaining Healthy Skin
Maintaining healthy skin and a healthy immune system will mean that your horse will be less likely to suffer from mud fever. Good general healthcare and ensuring that your horse has a balanced diet are essential. Feeding an oil that has high levels of essential fatty acids will improve skin and coat condition. Nettex Linseed Oil is ideal as it contains high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids which have been shown to benefit the skin.
What else can cause similar signs to mud fever?
There are other conditions that can mimic mud fever, so it is really important if your horse doesn’t respond to simple mud fever treatment to get your vet involved. Several conditions can cause the skin to become photosensitised and develop sunburn, which quickly becomes infected and looks exactly like mud fever.
Why don’t wild horses get mud fever?
Wild horses are able to roam over vast areas. This means that in harsh winter weather they are able to seek out natural shelter and areas to rest that have free-draining dry soil.
This bears little resemblance to how most of us keep our horses today. Domesticated horses are usually kept in paddocks. Over the winter these quickly can become cut up, especially as most modern horses are shoed. High foot-fall areas will quickly become poached, such as gates and around water troughs. This means that our horses are not able to avoid mud and sodden conditions.
Native breeds have thick coats designed to protect the skin from adverse weather and mud. However these breeds are now a minority and today’s horses are predominantly bred for their athletic ability. This means they are usually fine skinned with thin coats that give little protection. These factors combine to make modern horses much more prone to mud fever than wild horses.