Skin Conditions in Horses
If you find your horse has any unusual lumps, bumps rashes or bald patches, how do you know what skin condition it is?
Understanding horse skin conditions can be confusing and frustrating to know how to treat them. We take a look at 8 of the most common skin conditions in horses with advice on how to recognise them and what treatments are available.
Common Skin Conditions in Horses
Mud Fever/Pastern Dermatitis
Mud Fever/Pastern Dermatitis
By far the most common skin condition seen in horses/ponies, especially during the winter months, is mud fever, or pastern dermatitis, to give it its correct name. This is a seborrhoeic dermatitis involving the skin on the back of the pastern, and sometimes the fetlocks, or further up the leg. It requires moisture to become established, which is why it is often called “mud fever”. However, it is also commonly seen during the summer months, due to the early morning dew, followed by hot sun.
Horses with white legs appear to be very susceptible, and in these cases, you will often see the dermatitis extending all of the way up the horse’s white “sock”. It is mainly caused by the bacteria, Dermatophilus congolensis.
Treatment involves keeping the legs as clean and dry as possible, and clipping the hair is also helpful. If the legs are at all swollen, then a vet must be consulted, as this usually indicates infection, which will need antibiotics. The legs are often very sore, and once the area is clipped and cleaned, applying a soothing topical cream to the area will aid comfort.
Occasionally, severe pastern dermatitis, especially during the summer months, in areas with pink skin (white socks) may be an indicator of a more severe underlying problem, such as liver disease, or an immune mediated disease, so, if in doubt, speak to your vet.
Rain scald is basically mud fever, but on a horse’s back. As with mud fever, this is caused by the bacteria, Dermatophilus congolensis, and is due to the horse’s back being exposed to prolonged periods of wet weather. Treatment is to keep the area clean and dry, and will often require a period of stabling to resolve.
An extremely common condition seen in horses with lots of feather, is leg mites, or “Chorioptes equi”. This condition is easily identified, as the horse normally “stamps” its legs on the ground, bites at its legs, or tries to find gate posts or low fencing to rub the backs of its legs on. The mites irritate the skin, and this, combined with the horse rubbing the skin, can result in serum oozing from the skin, and infection. If not treated promptly (often with ivermectin injections, used off-licence), flies can be attracted to the hair and damp skin, resulting in maggot infestations during the summer months. Keeping the legs clipped, and changing bedding frequently, will minimize the risk of leg mites, but often a horse’s “feather” is an important part of a heavy horse’s appearance.
Horses can present with raised patches of varying sizes over their bodies, due to various allergic reactions; the horse may have eaten something, rolled in something, or been stung by something, that he/she is allergic to. If there are just a few lumps, and the source is removed, then these should resolve on their own, but if your horse is covered in raised patches, especially if these are anywhere near the head, then your vet should be called. Steroids, administered by a vet, will normally result in rapid resolution of the reaction. Unfortunately, anti-histamines rarely work well in horses.
Sweet itch is a specific type of allergic reaction, as it presents in a very specific way, readily recognized by most horse owners. Sweet itch is hypersensitivity to the biting midge, Culicoides. The disease can start at any age, and usually worsens with each consecutive summer. Pruritus (itching) usuallu occurs at the sites where the midge feeds, so the mane and tail, and often the back.
The best way to treat and manage sweet itch, is by removing the horse from the source. This means stabling the horse at dawn and dusk (normally around 5pm-8am) and keeping the horse well covered with a light ear to tail rug when turned out, to try and prevent the midges from biting. Keeping the horse in an electrified paddock, where he can’t itch, will prevent the skin abrasions caused by rubbing, but won’t help the horse’s comfort in any way. In the worst cases, your vet will pres
cribe systemic steroids, but the risk of steroid induced laminitis must be considered. Good fly/midge repellants are essential.
The skin is usually hot and sore, so applying soothing creams and gels will aid comfort. The skin can very easily become infected due to rubbing, so sweet itch treatment will nearly always involve your vet.
Horses with pink noses/white faces can suffer from sun burn, just as we can. Any areas of pink skin must be kept covered up, either with a well fitted fly mask with nose cover, or sun block, or both. Fly masks are easily removed by some horses, so ensure you buy one that both fits well, and is of good quality, to avoid rubbing. Sun burn can be relieved using coolng/soothing gels, and, in the worst cases, oral anti-inflammatories.
Apparent sun burn on a pink nose may also be a sign of underlying disease, so consult your vet if it does not resolve quickly.
Thanks to Natalie McGoldrick – MRCVS, South Coast Vets for this article
Treating Skin Conditions Naturally
Skin Soother is a natural cooling gel made with active ingredients, carefully selected to help soothe and calm skin irritations. It’s ideal for horses that rub their tail or mane, horses that suffer from sunburn or photo-sensitivity, horses with sensitive, dry or flaky skin, sweet itch suffers and gentle relief from insect or mite bites. See reviews