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Pastern Dermatitis in Horses: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

As horse owners and enthusiasts, it's crucial to ensure the well-being of our beloved equine companions. One common ailment that affects horses, especially those with feathered legs, is pastern dermatitis, commonly known as "scratches" or "mud fever." In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the causes, treatment, and prevention of pastern dermatitis, while offering valuable insights for optimizing your horse care routine.

Understanding Pastern Dermatitis

Pastern dermatitis is a skin condition that primarily affects the lower legs of horses, specifically the area around the pastern joint and the heel bulbs. It is characterized by inflammation, irritation, scabbing, and even open sores. While it can affect horses of any breed, those with feathers, such as draft horses and some pony breeds, are particularly susceptible due to moisture getting trapped in the hair.

Causes of Pastern Dermatitis

  1. Moisture and Mud: Excessive moisture and mud can weaken the skin's protective barrier, making it more susceptible to infection. Standing in damp environments for extended periods increases the likelihood of developing pastern dermatitis.

  2. Bacterial and Fungal Infections: Bacteria and fungi thrive in wet conditions, which can lead to infections and inflammation. These microorganisms can breach the skin's defenses and cause irritation.

  3. Poor Hygiene and Grooming: Neglecting regular cleaning and grooming can contribute to the buildup of dirt, debris, and sweat, providing a conducive environment for infections to develop.

Treatment Approaches

  1. Cleanliness: The cornerstone of treatment is maintaining a clean and dry environment for your horse. Regularly clean the affected area using mild, non-irritating cleansers.

  2. Topical Treatments: Veterinarian-prescribed topical creams or ointments can help combat bacterial and fungal infections. These products often contain ingredients like antimicrobials and corticosteroids to soothe inflammation.

  3. Antibiotics and Antifungals: In severe cases, your veterinarian may prescribe oral antibiotics or antifungal medications to address infections that have penetrated deeper layers of the skin.

  4. Bandaging: In consultation with your vet, consider using breathable bandages to protect the affected area from further contamination while allowing it to heal.

Preventive Measures

  1. Regular Grooming: Groom your horse regularly, paying special attention to cleaning the lower legs. Remove debris and sweat promptly to prevent moisture buildup.

  2. Proper Housing and Turnout: Provide your horse with a clean, dry environment. Turnout areas should have well-drained footing to minimize exposure to moisture and mud.

  3. Feather Maintenance: If your horse has feathers, consider trimming them during wet seasons to reduce the risk of moisture retention.

  4. Hoof Care: Proper hoof care is essential to maintain the integrity of the hoof and pastern area. Regular trimming and balanced shoeing can help prevent stress on the lower legs.


Pastern dermatitis can be a troublesome issue for horses, but with the right understanding, treatment, and prevention strategies, you can effectively manage and even prevent it. By prioritizing cleanliness, regular grooming, and maintaining a dry environment, you'll be taking significant steps towards ensuring the comfort and health of your equine companion. If symptoms persist or worsen, consulting a veterinarian is always the best course of action to ensure proper diagnosis and treatment. Your dedication to your horse's well-being will undoubtedly be reflected in their overall health and happiness.

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