August 04, 2022 4 min read
Mud fever, also known as pastern dermatitis, occurs when your horse’s skin is weakened due to excess moisture in their living environment. This could be due to muddy pastures, wet stall bedding, frequent bathing, wet grass, or a host of other environmental issues. Bacteria and fungi enter through the weakened epidermis and cause inflammation, irritation, and, in severe cases, swelling, pus, and lameness.
You can recognize mud fever because of its five main symptoms. First, you may notice patches of hair loss with bright pink or red irritated skin. Then, you’ll see scabs that could be easily mistaken for crusted-on mud. However, if you try and curry off these scabs, your horse may start bleeding. Over time, these scabs will grow in size and start to ooze. Eventually, these scabs will contain a bacteria-filled pus, which will only worsen your horse’s mud fever infection. Lastly, in very severe cases, the infected area will become hot and swell, most likely causing your horse to go lame.
It’s important to treat mud fever infections as soon as possible to stop them from progressing any further down the road to lameness. As part of caring for pastern dermatitis, your vet will most likely recommend that you keep the area clean and dry. But, these instructions can feel contradictory. After all, the best way to clean your horse’s legs is with a nice, soapy bath!
Let’s explore the conundrum: should you or should you not bathe a horse with mud fever?
Pastern dermatitis is often called mud fever because of how the infection develops– excess moisture in mud weakens and softens the skin, sandy debris in the mud causes minute scratches, and the combination allows bacteria and fungi to conquer the horse’s natural defenses. So, when we bathe a horse to clean a condition that’s related to excess moisture, we’re actually introducing more moisture to already-weakened skin. This softens the skin further and decreases the horse’s natural defenses.
When you take a shower or climb out of a bathtub or pool, one of the first things you probably do is moisturize. Showering or bathing actually strips your skin of its natural oils, leaving you feeling dry. The same thing happens to your horse. When you bathe them, you’re stripping their skin of its natural oils, which can actually weaken the protective dermal barrier.
If the horse is left to “air dry” or turned back out into the wet environment after a bath, like a dirty stall or muddy pasture, the legs will never dry out, which is essential when treating pastern dermatitis.
Despite the cons, there are actually several benefits to bathing a horse with mud fever, but it depends on your individual situation. A horse on stall board may be able to stay relatively clean without bathing. But horse owners who have their horse on field board or pasture board will not be able to keep the mud off their horse’s legs. Any bandages that they may apply can get soaked and unwind, creating a hazardous situation. Or, dirt and debris can become trapped underneath the bandages and further irritate the skin.
If stall rest isn’t an option, now what? Here is where bathing a horse with mud fever can be very beneficial. You should not curry or pick aggressively at pastern dermatitis as it could worsen the infection. Bathing is a good gentle alternative to currying a horse’s legs clean. Gentle water pressure can take off already-loose scabs and loosen others without aggressive currying or picking. Plus, the water will more thoroughly cleanse the area than a curry comb alone.
Equestrians can limit or eliminate the downfalls of bathing a horse with mud fever by following the correct protocol and taking the right precautions.
The solution to the conundrum is to carefully and properly bathe a horse with mud fever in order to solve the infection, not worsen it. It’s crucial that horse owners use mild soaps that are non-toxic and non-irritating only. Harsh astringent soaps like povidone-iodine and chlorhexidine will only dry out the skin, stripping it of its natural oils, and further weaken the protective dermal barrier.
Instead, use warm water and a mild soap or, even better, saline solution to gently cleanse the area. Do not scrub or use an aggressive product like a curry comb or abrasive sponge to rub at the pastern dermatitis. Your own fingers or a soft, gentle sponge is best. Your goal is not to pick off all of the mud fever. Your only goal is to gently remove already-loosened scabs and ensure the area is as clean as possible.
Only bathe a horse with mud fever every three to four days, or as needed.
After the Bath
How you take care of a horse with mud fever after a bath is just as important as what you do during the bath. Using a soft clean towel, dry the infected area as thoroughly as possible. You want to ensure that the pastern is dry down to the skin, not just the hair. It’s also a good idea to dry the entire leg as well, to ensure that water won’t drip down off the leg and onto the pastern. Don’t forget to be gentle! Don’t irritate the skin further with vigorous rubbing.
After your horse is clean and dry, use a barrier cream over the mud fever infection before turning the horse back out to pasture. This way, if your horse does get muddy, the barrier cream will be there to provide a layer of protection between your horse’s skin and environmental contaminants.
The fungi and bacteria that cause mud fever thrive in low-oxygen environments. Zarasyl Equine Barrier Cream lets oxygen in, while keeping contaminants out. It allows the wound to breathe and dehydrates any mud fever-causing bacteria. Plus, it works at a cellular level to regenerate healthy skin for a happier, more comfortable horse.