Mud fever can strike whenever a horse’s skin is injured or weakened due to damp conditions or other infections. And with this damp weather not looking like it’s going anywhere soon, you may want to take a look at our guide to cause and prevention of mud fever.
Common causes of mud fever
Mud fever is caused by a bacteria (Dermatophilus congolensis ) that invades the skin causing weeping sores and scabs which enable the bacteria to spread. It’s very contagious, and without proper precautions it may spread to other horses. Horses that have contracted it once may be prone to further bouts of the disease, and those with white legs and heavy feathering are more susceptible to developing it. Although it commonly appears when horses have been standing around in mud, it can also develop as a result of other conditions which weaken the skin such as fungal infections, mange or harvest mites, or injuries and irritation from working amongst straw stubble or from sand in an arena. This makes it harder to treat, as it won’t resolve until the predisposing condition is treated too, and that can be hard to detect.
Preventing mud fever
The best way to help to prevent mud fever is to take care of the skin on your horse’s legs. This can be managed in several ways:
• Feed a supplement to help strengthen the skin. There are several available such as Think Mud or Mud Gard which contain anti-oxidants and zinc to help prevent mud fever setting in.
• Avoid weakening or damaging your horse’s skin. Guard against injuries from rubbing, insect bites or sand/gravel in an arena. Avoid scrubbing the skin or rinsing off mud with a high pressure hose, as you may make your horse more susceptible. Horses with long hair on their legs (feathering) may benefit from having it cut – but not clipped. Conventional horse clippers will take too much hair away, leaving the skin exposed. It’s also better to let mud dry and to brush it off than to rinse it away, unless you’re careful to pat dry and then dry the legs with a hairdryer (with a circuit breaker).
• Make sure your horse doesn’t stand around in muddy conditions. Avoid allowing your horses to continually churn up the same piece of ground, and try to keep them away from sodden low-lying areas. Putting hardcore down in gateway areas can also help to reduce mud.
• Apply a barrier cream, boots or bandages. Protective boots and bandages can be useful during turnout providing you take care to ensure that mud doesn’t get underneath them. Alternatively applying a barrier cream such as zinc or castor oil to clean dry legs can help. However they may not completely prevent the bacteria finding it’s way into your horse’s skin in extremely muddy conditions, and should be removed before the horse is stabled. Specialist shampoos are available containing tea-tree or other antibacterials that may help to guard against infection.
Spotting mud fever early
Mud fever is easier to treat if it’s caught early and any any pre-disposing factors such as mange mites are treated at the same time. If mud fever is allowed to seriously set in, it can cause great pain, cracked heels and lameness. Something you should do every day is inspect your horse’s legs to make sure that they’re healthy. If your horse has swollen legs, is in pain or you suspect a secondary infection, you should call your vet immediately.
Treating mud fever
• Change the environment. Take the infected horse out of muddy or damp conditions, and stable with clean, dry and non-irritant bedding such as paper, cardboard or rubber matting. Exercise it on a lead rein in dry conditions where it’s unlikely to suffer further skin injury, such as on a road.
• Remove any scabs. Scabs harbour the problem bacteria and help it to spread. They remain infectious for 42 months after removal so it’s important to dispose of them carefully and to disinfect any equipment you use to trim hair or groom and infected horse. Bathe the affected areas gently with an antiseptic wash such as Hibiscrub, rinse and pat dry with paper towels. Dry carefully with a hairdryer equipped with a circuit breaker and take care not to burn the already delicate skin. Disinfect the stables of infected animals regularly.
• Treat with topical creams. There are many emollient gels and creams to soothe the skin and help it to heal, including some with antibiotics. A recent addition to some of these is silver, which is a strong antibacterial and can help to speed healing.
• Dress open wounds. Any open wounds remaining after the scabs are removed need to be left to ‘breathe’ for an hour a day, and then dressed with a non adhesive dressing under cotton wool or gauze held in place under bandages. Some owners maintain that bandages encourage moisture to accumulate, making things worse. If preferred a wound gel or powder may be applied instead. The legs will need to be bathed and dressed afresh daily.
• Administer antibiotics. Severe cases will also require a long course of antibiotics for up to 10 days after the infection has cleared together with anti-inflammatories to reduce pain and swelling. Of course you’d need to consult with your veterinary surgeon.
• Exercise gently. This may be painful, but very gentle exercise in-hand will encourage circulation and help to speed healing.
• Maintain good aftercare. After the lesions are healed the bandages may be removed, but care should be taken that the newly healed skin doesn’t suffer any fresh injury from abrasions etc. and the legs should be kept clean and dry. Make sure your horse has been protected from tetanus.
If in any doubt at all contact your veterinary surgeon who will be able to give you professional advice.