Signs and treatment of mud fever in horses

Signs and treatment of mud fever in horses

Now that the evenings are dark and winter has well and truly set in, it’s time to think about mud fever and your horse – what to do if the signs occur, recommended treatment and how to prevent it.

What is it?

Mud fever affects horses in the winter, this is because the skin is constantly wet, and mud will rub against the softened skin which breaks it up leaving it vulnerable to infection.

Mud fever affects the skin creases of the pastern and fetlock area by getting inflamed or infected. It can also be referred to as greasy heel or its proper name – pastern dermatitis.

The signs of mud fever start as the area being red and inflamed. This usually only goes as far as the fetlock but in extreme cases can go as high as the knee or hock. There can be a wet look to the area which can ooze and excrete a pussy discharge which dries and hardens to form a crust that often harbours bacteria within. The horse can sometimes cause further damage by scratching or biting the affected area. In extreme cases and where it is left untreated, the whole lower limb may become swollen and the horse becomes lame.

It’s a very common condition but you should always seek veterinarian advice to ensure that a correct diagnosis is given, and the right treatment applied – the earlier the better. A diagnosis is generally made from the clinical signs alone but sometimes skin scrapes, hair plucks, blood samples and skin biopsies can establish the cause.


After spotting any signs of mud fever, try to ensure the horse is kept in a dry, clean, hygienic environment or box rest might be the best option whilst treatment is carried out. Keep the affected area as clean and dry as possible.

Heavily feathered horses will benefit from having their legs clipped, this allows the affected areas to be seen fully, allow the hair and skin to dry faster and scabs to come away rather than getting stuck to the hair.

It’s best to remove the scabs but this can be painful to the horse and a veterinarian may be needed to sedate the horse prior to doing so. Scabs can be softened by soaking the area in a warm water bath with diluted chlorhexidine (Hibiscrub) or by using a skin softening cream under an overnight stable bandage.

Always ensure the area is clean and dry before applying any topical treatments as recommended by your veterinarian.

Other possible treatments that can be recommended by a veterinarian:

  • Antibacterial creams
  • Systemic antibiotics
  • Topical antibiotics
  • Pain relief/anti-inflammatories – are important if the horse has painful scabs
  • Stabling during the day or using ultraviolet
  • Topical or systemic steroids for horses with immune mediated conditions

If left untreated, mud fever can be complicated by cellulitis of the entire limb.

Prevention tips

  • Avoid your horse being in continuous wet conditions causing soaking of the skin
  • If a dry paddock is not available, keep the horse stabled in wet weather
  • Rather than hosing down the legs with water, leave muddy legs to dry and brush off any mud the next day
  • Dry legs thoroughly with a towel if they get wet
  • Only use a barrier cream on clean and dry areas
  • Use electric fencing to block off muddy areas to your horse

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