Scratches

Mud Fever… Dew Poison… Greasy Heel…

Pastern Dermatitis. Scratches in horses is a condition caused by the fungus Sporotrichum Schenki. It’s a chronic, progressive, painful condition that infects the deep layers of skin in the heel, fetlock and pasterns of horses.

From the American Association of Equine Practitioners:

Scratches can affect any breed– it most commonly affects the rear aspect of the hind pasterns and especially nonpigmented skin. Without treatment, the lesions can spread to the front of the pastern and fetlock. Clinical signs vary, but initially owners might notice edema (fluid swelling), redness and scaling, rapidly progressing to oozing, hair matting and crusting. Ulcers might form on the skin. Secondary bacterial infection is a common complication and can perpetuate the signs. In chronic cases, skin can thicken and fissure due to constant movement and flexion in this area. The lesions are often painful.

With the extreme wet weather Khaleesi and I battled our first real bout of scratches this fall. The older gray mare I had went through it every spring and fall as a mostly mild case that took constant attention in ‘dew’ season.

In the four years I’ve had Khaleesi she has never developed a case until this fall. Her condition however got so bad on the white sock hind foot it was extremely painful and all my previous successful treatments only held it at bay. After I was sure I’d gotten it under control a little rain and it wound return worse than ever until it threatened to take over the entire back of her foot.

Of course the best treatment plans always suggest keeping your horse off damp pasture and dry and clean in a stall. This year that would have meant keeping K inside for months- and I can’t even rationalize a whole day unless the injury or damage is truly more serious than the intense stress that comes from a horse used to living in pasture naturally being jailed in a cell no matter how nice the cell is.

After working through some options and trying a few different products to greater and lesser success and commiserating with others who’d had varying degrees of success battling the condition over the years, I did finally come up with a magic formula that I will use next time and share it with you in case you find yourself looking for a good treatment.


My first step is to clean the area as much as I’m able as it’s usually very sensitive and also probably muddy because that’s why we have a problem in the first place (wet muddy conditions). I start with a gentle spray with the hose and then gently press as she’ll allow with a clean towel and try to rub just a little to loosen any dirt and mud I can. (Dry either with towel or air dry to prepare for step two)

Second and most important is to shave the area. This helps keep moisture as minimal as possible and allows for the scabs to release better as they have less hair worked into the painful scabs. It also allows you to really work the cream into the affected and painful area.

Third apply product. I have had luck in the past with scarlet oil alternated with zinc oxide diaper rash cream. The scarlet oil seems to help dry out the area and is antibacterial but the zinc oxide helps to soothe and protect the skin and it helps the scabs soften. I’ve never used both at the same time until….

Two good horse friends suggested the best application is a thing I’d never heard of called thuja zinc oxide. My dear friend decided to buy Khaleesi a container of it when she heard how bad the condition had gotten over the weeks… it was out of stock and the substitution was just straight white zinc.

That was ok because I learned that thuja zinc is basically zinc oxide and scarlet oil (it also has petroleum, lanolin and thuja oil).

I’d never heard of thuja oil. Very brief research says it is another name for it is cedar oil (which I use at home…) I am not sure if cedar oil truly is the same as thuja. Here is what thuja is used for topically (webMD):

Thuja is sometimes applied directly to the skin for joint pain, ostearthritis, and muscle pain. Thuja oil is also used for skin diseases, warts, and cancer; and as an insect repellent.

Between this information and a suggestion of a local farm friend who keeps horses and sheep… llamas and cows etc… whose wife is a nurse practitioner (and often have sound advice): they use athletes foot cream…

So. I made my own concoction of-

  • Zinc oxide
  • Scarlet oil
  • Athletes foot cream
  • And… within a couple days the scabs and lesions were cleared up never to return again.
  • This will definitely be my go to for bacterial or fungal skin conditions in the future- I may even add a few drops of cedar or thuja!
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