Dealing with Scratches

Unfortunately, I have had so much experience with scratches over the years that I think I have it down to a science! I had a Paint with white legs who used to get very severe scratches (they used to spread manure in his pasture and I think that contributed) and the best solution was always to ride him down to the beach and let him splash in the salt water. Of course, that isn’t an option for most of us... Oh, how I miss those hacks to the beach… sigh. Not even global warming is going make our current farm waterfront property!

So, we’ll have to do the best we can with what we have. This is what I’ve learned through a lot of trial and error over the years:

The terms mud fever and scratches are more or less interchangeable. Older books will refer to it as dew poisoning, greasy heel, or cracked heels. You could compare them to rain rot or rain scald, as it is basically the same condition occurring on the legs. The skin is designed to have a healthy layer of natural oils, grease and dead skin to protect it from the elements and infectious agents. But, overexposure of the legs to wet conditions, too much washing and scrubbing, brushing with a coarse brush, etc. and even sunburn can break down the skin’s natural defense against the bacteria, fungus, and even mites can cause scratches by softening the skin, opening the pores, removing the grease and abrading the protective layer of dead skin cells. This opens up the skin to infectious agents and you get “scratches.”

It can start as just redness, inflammation, and hair clumping together and falling out, but if left untreated can become a full-blown infection where the skin become severely inflamed and can crack, allowing outside infectious agents to get into the wounds and fester there. These cracks will exude serum (which is part of that crusty stuff you see on the pasterns and heels) and because the skin in this area stretches a lot, they will continue to open up and get even worse. Sometimes the horse will go lame due to them, either because of the painful cracks or the uncomfortable swelling.

One summer, my horse Nate (who was living outside at the time) developed a case of scratches that I was treating conservatively with a topical antiseptic (it being nearly impossible to bring him in, wash and dry his legs and then put him back in the field where he was going to stand in mud every day....) Then one day, seemingly overnight, it got infected to the point where his entire leg swelled, the crack burst open and his hoof separated at the coronet band and began draining huge amounts of serum and pus. He got the treatment recommended below of soaking and Animalintex, plus a course of strong antibiotics from the vet and was feeling better within a day or two, but it took a total of three weeks to heal and another two months to get shoes back on him!

I take scratches pretty seriously after that!

The best way to treat this persistent condition is to clip away the hair from the area, both so you can dry the area quickly and so you can get the medication to the source! Then, for a...

Mild Case (red or chapped skin): Give a good wash with mild soap and water, dry thoroughly and apply Desitin.

Moderate Case (inflammation, but no cracking): Wash (avoid scrubbing) with Betadine or Nolvosan scrub, dry thoroughly and apply a warm, wet Animalintex poultice under a bandage. Leave on for 24-48 hours. Do not wash again. If the inflammation is calmed, leave it alone. If it is still raw, apply the bandage again or cover with waterproof barrier ointment.

Severe Case (lesions leaking serum, crusty build-up, infection): Soak ONCE in a warm, MILD saline (I like to use sea salt, but epson salts work also) and Betadine solution for 15 minutes, rinse, towel dry and apply a warm, moist Animalintex poultice pad to the area, bandage with gauze or Vetwrap, and apply standing bandages as necessary (do not apply Vetwrap to a bare leg, but pad with sheet cotton, gamgee or other bandaging material to avoid cording/a bandage bow.)   Leave this on for the recommended 12 hours and let the legs air for the other 12 hours in a dry pasture or clean shavings. Reapply Animalintex.  Do not wash off the medication while the legs air (though if the treatment lasts more than a day or two, rinsing may be needed every other day, but do not use any soap or scrub.)  Reapply Animalintex.  In the case of severe or persistent infection, 24 hour bandaging may be in order.  Avoid muddy turnout or work during this stage. The medication in the poultice will work on the exudate and infection, while soothing the skin and providing a good, protective layer against further infection.  Resist the temptation to pick at the crusty scabs; using the bandage wet helps soften the crusty build-up and remove it gently on its own.

Severe Infection: In a very severe case where there is a lot of inflammation, infection, or the horse is lame, it is best to call a vet, as oral or injectable antibiotics and/or anti-inflammatories may be needed in addition to topical treatment; only your vet can advise on this.  While you should always follow your vet’s advice on such matters, I personally think Panalog ointment is a waste of time on crusty scratches, and you may want to talk to your vet about trying the Animalintex for a few days first, and allowing it to gently remove the crusts before applying the Panalog - you may even find you don't need it at all.

Animalintex is my all-time favorite horse product, and I use it for just about everything. It’s safe, mild and versatile. If you want to err on the side of caution, you can go to the Animalintex right from the beginning even for a mild case.

Once the skin heals, it is important to keep the legs clean and dry, and to avoid washing with soap in order to allow the protective oils/grease to accumulate on the skin again. If you know your horse is prone to the condition, you have to be especially careful. If the legs are muddy, wait until they are DRY to brush them, and avoid using too coarse a brush, as it may abrade the skin and open it up to new infections (I like to use a soft rubber curry or mitt and then a medium-soft bristle brush.) You can rinse the mud off if you dry the legs afterwards. If you have to wash them, use a mild soap, dry thoroughly and apply something protective like Desitin, Corona, or Horseman’s Dream, etc..

While treating to prevent infection, be careful not to over-do with the Betadine, as it not only strips the skin of its protective oils, but it can dry the skin out and lead to cracking and... scratches!
Anyway, hope this helps. Good Luck!


  1. Wow, you certainly know all about scratches! Thanks for this very informative and helpful article on how to treat and prevent scratches.

  2. Good to read all the various names for this problem as well as such a well laid out plan of action!

    I've been using a locally produced product called Banixx - marketed for thrush and wound care and various fungal skin issues. We haven't had what I'd consider full blown scratches but occasionally Keil Bay and Salina will get what I call rain rot on the fronts of their hind legs.

    My usual treatment is a good shampoo with the Equitek Shampoo, but the Banixx is easier to apply and seems to do a good job.

    I've heard good things about the Animalintex - good to hear your take too!

  3. GHM- Thanks!

    billie - the Banixx sounds interesting... i'm always looking for alternative scratch treatments, especially for the stuff they get on the fronts of their hind cannons - stuff i unscientifically call 'the crud.' i've never tried Equitek - is it like Micro-Tek?

    i can't recommend Animalintex enough - i've used it for abscesses, thrush, white line, wounds, preventing proud flesh, etc...

    i've been wanting to experiment with neem oil on beginning scratches and 'crud.' i've found it works on the beginnings of rain rot in itchy manes. i've also had luck with tincture of myrrh in itchy manes...

  4. Oops - it's Micro-Tek I was referring to! Sorry - I can't keep track of all these products... :)

    The thing I'm liking about the Banixx is it too has multiple uses and it has NO odor. I've also had very good response from the creator who responded to a question I had by having one of the vet researchers for the product call me to discuss a specific use scenario. I love that kind of customer service.

    Yes, the hind cannon crud thing - that's what I've heard it called but I just can't bear to call it that. :) Salina gets it on her back in the spring but it's easily remedied with the shampoo a few days in a row. The cannons seem more stubborn but respond if I match that with my own persistence.

    It continues to amaze me that our pony never gets any of this stuff that is so common in horses. He is the easiest keeper on the planet. (if you don't count his escape artist skills!)

  5. Meant to say that I've heard people gush about neem oil - I have used it for the Corgis before with good results.

  6. billie - well, it's good to know it isn't just ME who has a hard time getting rid of the crud! you would think it would be the easiest thing to treat, but it's so persistent!

    neem is great - i started taking it in capsule form for my chronic lyme disease as an alternative to living on antibiotics, and it seems to work great that way, so i have high hopes for using it topically... plus, i feel better about any medication that doubles as food ;-)

    it sounds like the people at Banixx really take their product seriously - that's wonderful. another product that i have really liked for skin problems is 'dy's liquid bandage.' it's expensive, but a little goes a long way...

    ponies are the toughest creatures on earth, aren't they? (and the most mischievous!)

  7. We have a horse at the barn that gets a horrible "crud" on his face every summer... starts out as reddness, then eventually because black and flakey... nothing seems to work...where do you get Animalintex?

  8. hi denise - hmmm, is the 'crud' on that horse's face on his muzzle or in a white parking? it might be 'dew poisoning' from photosensitivity. i've seen horses get it from sunburn, especially if they eat clover or sometimes alfalfa... it's very hard to treat, but there is a way... and once it's cleared up it can sometimes be prevented with sunscreen (zinc based is best) or changing the hay/pasture - if that is his problem...?

    you can get animalintex pretty much anywhere. i usually order mine from kv vet or smartpak, but i think dover and stateline carry it as well. it is a poultice pad, so you're kind of limited to using it on the legs and feet...

  9. What a great post! My sister bought her gelding, Waska, last summer, so when his hind legs developed scratches in the winter, she was really caught off guard.

    Initially, she had to have the vet come out and treat him, but now she does the exact same thing that you reccommended, and it works!

    Unfortunately for Amber and Waska, Western Washington is not kind to horses who suffer from scratches, and I am afraid that they are in for another long least she can get a head start on it this year!

  10. hi knutson's - wow, western washington must be a mess in winter. i'll remember that when i'm complaining about our winters here ;-) i'm glad they found something that worked for them so they can be prepared this time.

  11. There can also be a genetic component as chronic scratches often occur in horses with Shire heritage. Breeds like the Shire, Clydesdale, and Gypsy have reoccurring problems with it. I have to continuously treat and clip my Shire to try to control it. With heavy hair, clipping is recommended to expose the skin to air and light as this helps to kill the infection. Also clipping is necessary to get access to the skin for cleaning and application of medication.

    I continuously wash the surface to loosen the crust and disinfect the area. The crust must be loosened and remove before medication is applied or the medication will not reach the infected skin. I apply MTG which disinfects and moisturizes the area. Moisturizing is necessary to prevent the skin from drying out and cracking, protecting the skin, and loosening the crust so that it falls off.

    A study has found that there is a link between some cases of scratches and CPL. Scratches has been found, in some cases, to damage the skin and capillaries which can lead to CPL.

  12. bhm - i've heard that drafts, and especially those with feathers are more prone to scratches, but i didn't realize it was genetic - i always just thought the feathers trapped more moisture and contaminants...

    i like the animalintex poultices because they simultaneously soak and soften the crusts while applying antiseptic (boric acid) to the site. clipping definitely helps, except it is hard to clip once the crusts form - sometimes the best you can do is to crop the hair close with a scissor and wait for the crusts to slough off. i don't recommend clipping to the skin as a preventative for most horses, though, as some hair is good for protecting the skin, but a moderate length clip on a feathery horse is probably a good idea.

    i've never tried the MTG, but it sounds like an interesting product - and of course anything with sulfur tends to be good for skin problems, if you don't mind the smell...

    ok, now i feel a little stupid; what's cpl? is it like lymphangitis?

  13. You probably wouldn’t have heard of CPL unless you are involved with draft horses so don’t feel stupid. The following is information on the topic.

    About Chronic Progressive Lympoedema (CPL)

    About Scratches:

    About genetic links to CPL
    Google this article: The Veterinary Journal : Evaluation of FOXC2 as a candidate gene ...

    About other cause of scratches and CPL

  14. bhm - thanks for the great information. cpl sounds like a nightmare. poor draft horses! now that you mention it, i think i have seen drafts with those lumpy, scabby legs and just thought it was ordinary scratches. and that is so interesting about the difference between light and heavy horses' skin - i would never have imagined...

    we don't have as much trouble with mites, and i wonder if it just has to do with breed type then? but i do sometimes wonder if that crud that forms along the fronts of the cannons might be mite-related, since it is difficult to cure with ordinary scrtach treatment - maybe i'll try the sulphur product you mentioned...

    i wonder if applying something like equispot would prevent the mites from attacking these poor horses, as it gets into the skin so these 'bugs' can't take hold? (we've had a lot of luck using it to keep ticks off and prevent lyme reinfection...)

  15. I’m glad that you found the articles useful as I posted them because they would explain the condition better than I could. The sad thing about CPL is that often there is very little that you can do about it and eventually the horse has to be put down. I’m not sure about mites as I have never had to deal with it but from what I understand about it is that it requires special medication so I’m not sure if Equispot would work.

    The difference between bacterial/fungus related scratches and mite scratches is that the latter will not heal with normal treatment for scratches. So, you can tell the difference because the scratches are not clearing up with an antibacterial or antifungal medication.

    Studies have shown that there is a difference between draft horse skin and the skin of other breeds. When draft skin scrapings are placed in a sealed test tube the mites will continue to thrive. When thoroughbred skin scrapings are placed in a similar test tube the mites will die. Researchers are not certain, at this point, what the causes the mites to die in non-draft breed but they do give hope for future treatments.

    Feathers can cause many types of problems as their density causes build up of oil, dirt, and can harbor ticks and fleas. They need to be washed and cleaned regularly and are very difficult to clean thoroughly. I, like many others, prefer to clip so that the hair is the same length as a regular horse’s hair. They don’t really need the long feathers as the feathers only serve as protection from underbrush or sharp or rough grasses. Ideally, I would love to have those beautiful long feathers but it’s a full time job to maintain them.

  16. i think if i had a draft i'd clip the feathers too. i'd be so paranoid about cpl... i hope they come up with a successful treatment soon - it must be heartbreaking to see it develop knowing there is little one can do to help...

  17. Awesome informative post! I've been lucky so far as mine have a fair amount of mud to contend with during early spring, but I've never had to deal with this (knock on wood). In my own mind, I think the way I clean troughs with bleach and rinse it over the ground helps to kill any lurking ground bacteria. If it's caused by fungus and damp, I wonder if in early stages if an antifungal cream might help?

  18. hi callie! thanks. if you've never had to deal with them you're lucky! we haven't had much trouble since the horses haven't been showing. they were much worse off when they were getting washed and scrubbed a few times a week. they do say there is a fungal component to scratches, so the anti-fungal cream might help - and it certainly can't hurt :-)

  19. I have found that solidified bacon grease works better than anything. Slather it on the area, wait 20 minutes, scrub with hot water and soap. About 60% of the scabs will peel off. Put another light layer on, then peel away the scabs every other day or so. After about 10 days, they'll be gone. It's amazing! We've had great success with this on several horses in our barn. Kind of strange but it works! We're in Utah where the air is pretty dry. I don't know if that makes a difference in terms of the kind of fungus we have here.

  20. wow! that's one i never would have thought to try! sounds messy but interesting... thanks for the comment :-)

  21. Saw your comments about Scratches, Banixx worked great on show horses for a friend of mine using Banixx Liquid first followed by Banixx Gel. Very easy to use and no nasty smell, also fixed her dog hot spots!!

  22. My Paint mare's white legs in back have a very persistent case. Had the vet here on 1 Nov 2012. Continued her treatment and instructions. Now it is 24 Nov 2012 and I am still treating her twice a day. So far all I seem to be doing is preventing bleeding and crusting. Skin seems to be healing a bit more each day, with the lesions in the middle of the crease getting smaller. Lots of pink, new skin. The vet's work was similar to what you Rx above for Severe Case.

    I've also used coconut oil to moisturize, and Vetericyn and Bannix to disinfect. Coconut oil is one of a dozen or so natural products with anti-fungal properties.

    As soon as the hooves get dirty, the crusts come back, so I've been keeping her in a stall with mats and light shavings and we've been cleaning up her waste immediately. Neither one of us is very happy.

    Does all this sound normal? I have not ridden her since late October, and I would like to, but I've been afraid to.

  23. oh no! your poor mare :-( it sounds as if you are doing all you can as per your vet's advice, and i wouldn't dream of offering anything contrary to that, as i am not a vet, and so wouldn't want to give you conflicting information. i can only tell you what has worked for my own horses.

    for my horses with similar cases, i do try to avoid too much daily washing, scrubbing and disinfecting, even in severe cases, as this seems to aggravate the situation, in my experience. i know the temptation is to want to get in there and help and treat as much as possible, but i've found with this stuff sometimes leaving it alone to do its work is best. i will leave the moistened, gooey animalintex on for a day, remove, wash with plain water or very mild soap and simply reapply for another full day, completely covering the affected area. no additional medications or moisturizers are generally needed until the skin closes up. then something like the coconut oil, along with the horse's natural oils, would make a fantastic barrier ointment to future infections. i'd never wash her legs again without applying something like that after.

    i hope that helps. you may want to try it if you feel like what you're doing isn't working. but if you feel what you're doing is helping then don't give up. and you may want to check with your vet first before you change anything. like i said, this has worked for me and my horses, but i'm not a vet.

    good luck. let us know if you need anything, how your mare does and what ultimately works for her. hope she's feeling better soon :-)

  24. So glad I stumbled upon your website. Thank you!

    As to scratches, some of the products mentioned are corrosive and can cause problems, so use caution. Softening, cleaning are all good. Another item that helps is the old fashioned (orignal gold colored) Listerine mouth wash, sprayed on daily. Sounds wierd, but it does work. Another product from the draft world that seems to help is sulfa power--available from pharmacies or ag suppler where they cater to orchards. Sulfa powered has antibotic properties and helps to keep out infections and dry out the sores. As far as shaving, sometimes you might have to shave, but we try not to and have been fortunate that we've never had to shave one of ours. From proud owner of Clyde.

    1. thanks, ClydeOwner! yes, is seem to recall we've had some luck with the listerine in the distant past, too. thanks for the reminder. it's a great all-purpose disinfectant. our vet also recommends the sulfa powder, though i haven't had to use it on any of mine yet.

      and i agree, shaving is a last resort. we try to leave as much of their natural protections in place as possible, including hair! i don't even trim fetlock hair on any of mine so they get better water run-off and less abrasion, which seems to protect the heels and help prevent scratches in the first place!


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