Mud Fever: The Symptoms and Management

What is Mud Fever?

Mud fever; also known as pastern dermatitis or ‘cracked heels’ is hugely prevalent at this time of year.

As the rain continues to fall our paddocks become inevitably waterlogged and poached, creating the perfect environment for this skin condition to develop.

The mud coats the lower limbs breaking down the skins’ natural barrier. The skin then becomes soft, fragile and prone to damage.

Horses with white legs are more susceptible.

What are the Signs?

Any small break in the skin caused by abrasions from the grit in the mud or sand from arenas enables the bacteria to enter.

The resulting symptoms are heat, swelling and crusty pink hairless lesions around the pastern and heel bulbs.

The bacteria most commonly responsible for this infection is Dermatophilus congolensis. Left untreated infection can spread up the limb causing cellulitis.

This is a painful condition resulting in lameness and swelling of the affected limb.

Prevention is Better Than Cure

Prevention is preferable and keeping your horses’ legs clean and dry is the best way to control mud fever.

However, this is easier said than done at this time of year.

  • Clipping very hairy legs will reduce the accumulation of wet mud around the lower limb and allow better assessment for developing lesions.
  • Managing areas in the field prone to deep mud; particularly around gateways and water troughs. By putting down hardcore or woodchip this will reduce the amount of mud coming into contact with the legs.
  • Hosing legs off on a daily basis is not advised unless they are going to be thoroughly dried afterwards. This process will lengthen the amount of time the hair and skin is damp. Instead, allow the mud to dry and then brush it off.

There are many products available that are aimed at preventing mud fever as they work to protect the skin from moisture.

However these products should not be used if mud fever lesions have already developed as they can slow down the healing process. 

It is imperative that horses’ legs are checked frequently to enable prompt diagnosis and treatment.

My Horse Has Mud Fever, What Do I Do?

If mud fever is identified then bring your horse out of the mud and into a stable or barn.

First clip the hair around the lesions and remove any scabs with a dilute Hibiscrub wash as this will allow more accurate and effective application of treatments.

Thoroughly dry the leg after removing the scabs. If lesions are noticed on more than one leg, then be sure to dry each leg with a different towel, in order to prevent the spread of the infection.

Most of the time mud fever can be managed topically with prescription antibiotic creams such as Flamazine but sometimes oral or injectable antibiotics are required.

Your horse should then remain on box rest or in an enclosed yard/barn area until the lesions have been treated and the skins’ barrier has been restored.

If you are unsure or your horse is lame, then please contact your vet as further investigations or veterinary prescription treatment may be required.

If your horse isn’t responding to treatment then there can be other rare causes of lesions of this nature, particularly if only affecting white haired skin, that may need to be investigated and ruled out.