How to spot and prevent mud fever in horses

Any horse owner will know that their companions love to graze in open fields and spend days out and about. Unfortunately, the UK weather isn’t always on our side and grassy areas can quickly become waterlogged and muddy from the rain. 

While we’re lucky enough to pop on our wellies to cover up against even the harshest of weathers, our horse’s hooves are exposed to the elements. While we can usually do our best to get them under shelter and back in the dry, horses that are exposed to mud for a long period of time are vulnerable to mud fever. 

Mud fever, or pastern dermatitis, can be caused by the bacteria that thrive in muddy, wet conditions. It is a collection of factors and diseases that cause irritation, infection and damage to the lower limbs of horses. One of the main culprits is a particular strain of bacteria that lives in mud and on the skin – Dermatophilus congolensis. 

The infection can lie dormant in the skin until it’s exposed to particularly muddy conditions for a prolonged amount of time. This causes the skin to weaken and enables the bacteria to penetrate the skin.

Signs to look out for

Mud fever can cause a number of symptoms, and may occur a number of times during a horse’s lifetime. These can include:

  • Crusty scabs and lesions
  • Discharge between the skin and scab
  • Hair loss that leads to inflamed, raw-looking skin
  • The appearance of ‘cracked heels’.

How to help

There are a number of things you can do to prevent mud fever. After all, prevention is better than the cure!

  • Keep your horse’s legs as dry as possible and check them daily 
  • Ensure they’re not outside for a long period of time in muddy conditions where possible
  • Keep your paddock in good condition and try to prevent it from being churned up.

If you do spot what you suspect is mud fever, give your vet a call at the earliest possible sign to ensure the infection is cleared up quickly and easily. 

Neil’s top tips

  • It sounds obvious, but prevention is always better than treating an infection! It will save your horse from extreme discomfort and ultimately, time and money
  • Your paddock is your horse’s home, so be sure to keep it as hoof-friendly as possible
  • Like with any infection treatment, consistency with treatment is crucial. If your horse develops mud fever, you should carry out all treatments routinely and as instructed by your vet
  • Be vigilant! Check your horse daily for ailments and keep them dry where possible, particularly during the winter months.