A horse's hooves and lower legs take a lot of punishment over an active life, and even minor damage to the lower limbs can turn into a serious condition if not treated promptly and effectively. Mud fever, contrary to common belief, is not a single illness but a range of related diseases, but the end result of all of them is the same—swollen, inflamed and painful lower legs covered by unsightly scabs and potentially loaded with dangerous and infectious pathogens.
Happily, while untreated mud fever can become a serious illness, the condition itself responds to fairly straightforward treatments. Working closely with your horse's vet from day one will virtually ensure a fast and thorough recovery for your unfortunate horse.
What is mud fever, and what causes it?
In simple terms, mud fever is a form of dermatitis that affects the skin around the hooves and lower legs of horses. This dermatitis is caused by small scratches and abrasions to the skin of the lower limbs, which allow various infectious pathogens, such as bacteria and fungal spores, to infect the horse's skin. The condition can also be exacerbated by contributing factors such as UV sensitivity and outbreaks of mange.
The abrasions that allow mud fever pathogens to infect a horse can come from a variety of sources, and can be difficult to avoid. However, mud fever generally occurs frequently in warm, moist weather, so keeping your horse's stable and bedding dry and clean is key to avoid this condition. Abrasions can also be caused by running on wet, heavy ground for extended periods, as well as standing in muddy or waterlogged paddocks in winter.
What are the symptoms of mud fever?
Mud fever can cause the following symptoms:
- Lesions around the hooves and ankles, usually covered by scabs
- Thick, pale discharge and pus
- Localised hair loss and matting, as well as in-growing hairs
- Weeping fissures, particularly at the back of your horses hooves
- Reduced appetite
- Temporary lameness
If left untreated, the infectious pathogens that cause mud fever may spread to other parts of the body, causing systemic illness and potential blood poisoning. As such, it is important to seek prompt veterinary aid when a case of mud fever is identified.
How can mud fever be treated?
There are a number of safe and effective treatments which can be used to treat and cure mud fever in your horse:
- Scab removal: This removes the protection that the scabs provide to the infection organisms causing mud fever, and allows treatment to reach all damaged areas of the skin. This procedure can be very painful for your horse, so you may wish to have your vet remove the scabs under local or general anaesthetic.
- Disinfection and washing: The exposed lesions are then disinfected using an antiseptic soak or shampoo, and any embedded grit, dirt and in-growing hairs are removed.
- Ointment application: An optional step which can help protect your horse's vulnerable hooves during the healing process. Suitable ointments should be antiseptic and not wash off easily—your vet will be able to supply you with suitable varieties, which generally contain zinc, castor oil or other natural antiseptics. These ointments also help to reduce swelling and inflammation and can soothe itching or minor pain experienced by the horse.
- Antibiotics: In cases where the infection has become entrenched, or has spread to other parts of the body, your horse may need to take a short course of antibiotics to recover. Antibiotic topical gels can also be effective.
- Bandaging: Applying bandages or sterile protective foot coverings help to protect the vulnerable hooves while they heal. However, damp or unsterilised bandages can worsen infection, while tightly-applied bandages can reduce blood flow and slow healing. As such, it's generally best to let a vet do this unless you have extensive experience in treating horses.