Scratches in Horse


As horse owners, we cherish the well-being of our equine companions, and one common dermatological issue that requires attention is “scratches,” scientifically known as pastern dermatitis. This condition, characterized by inflammation and irritation in the heel, pastern, or fetlock areas of a horse, can range from mild to severe. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the causes, symptoms, prevention, and treatment of scratches, providing insights into how to care for your horse and maintain their skin health.

Understanding Scratches (Pastern Dermatitis):

  1. Causes:
    • Scratches are often caused by a combination of factors. Prolonged exposure to wet or muddy conditions softens the skin, making it more susceptible to irritation. Bacteria, fungi, or mites can then invade the compromised skin, leading to inflammation.
  2. Symptoms:
    • Identifying scratches early is crucial for effective treatment. Common symptoms include redness, swelling, heat, and scabs or crusts forming in the affected area. In severe cases, horses may exhibit lameness or reluctance to bear weight on the affected limb.
  3. Risk Factors:
    • Horses exposed to damp or muddy conditions, especially in the winter, are more prone to scratches. Feathered breeds, such as drafts and Friesians, may be at higher risk due to the accumulation of moisture and debris in the feathering.

Preventing Scratches:

  1. Maintain Cleanliness:
    • Regularly clean and groom your horse, paying particular attention to the lower limbs. Remove mud, debris, and wet bedding promptly to reduce the risk of skin irritation.
  2. Dry Turnout Areas:
    • Provide dry turnout areas, especially during wet seasons. Mud and moisture contribute to the development of scratches, so ensuring dry ground can significantly reduce the risk.
  3. Feathering Maintenance:
    • If your horse has feathering, keep it well-trimmed. Feathering can trap moisture and dirt, creating an ideal environment for scratches. Regularly clean and inspect the feathering for any signs of irritation.
  4. Proper Bedding:
    • Use clean and dry bedding in stalls to create a comfortable and hygienic environment. Bedding materials like straw or shavings can absorb moisture and prevent skin issues.
  5. Regular Inspections:
    • Conduct regular inspections of your horse’s lower limbs. Early detection allows for prompt intervention and minimizes the severity of scratches.

Treating Scratches:

  1. Clean the Affected Area:
    • Begin by gently cleaning the affected area with mild soap and water. Remove any scabs or crusts carefully, taking care not to cause additional trauma to the skin.
  2. Topical Treatments:
    • Apply topical treatments recommended by your veterinarian. These may include antifungal or antibacterial ointments to address the underlying microbial infection.
  3. Protective Barrier:
    • Use a protective barrier, such as petroleum jelly or zinc oxide ointment, to create a barrier against moisture and irritants. This helps promote healing and prevents further irritation.
  4. Systemic Medications:
    • In severe cases or if there is evidence of a systemic infection, your veterinarian may prescribe oral or injectable medications such as antibiotics or antifungals.
  5. Bandaging:
    • In some cases, bandaging may be necessary to protect the affected area from further contamination and promote a moist healing environment. Consult with your veterinarian for proper bandaging techniques.
  6. Rest and Restricted Turnout:
    • During the treatment period, consider providing rest and restricting turnout to a dry area. This minimizes further trauma to the affected skin and allows for optimal healing.

When to Consult a Veterinarian:

While mild cases of scratches can often be managed with proper care, it’s essential to consult a veterinarian if:

  • The condition persists despite home treatments.
  • There are signs of a systemic infection, such as fever or lethargy.
  • The horse shows severe lameness or discomfort.
  • The affected area appears hot, swollen, or exhibits a foul odor.

Precautions for Horse Owners:

  1. Quarantine Affected Horses:
    • If you have multiple horses, consider quarantining the affected horse to prevent the potential spread of the condition.
  2. Strict Hygiene Measures:
    • Practice strict hygiene measures when handling an affected horse. Wash your hands thoroughly, and use separate grooming tools for each horse to avoid cross-contamination.
  3. Monitor Other Horses:
    • Keep a close eye on other horses in the same environment. Early detection and intervention can prevent the spread of scratches.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What are scratches in horses?
    • Scratches, scientifically known as pastern dermatitis, is a skin condition affecting the heel, pastern, or fetlock areas of a horse. It is characterized by inflammation, redness, and the formation of scabs or crusts.
  2. What causes scratches in horses?
    • Scratches are often caused by a combination of factors, including prolonged exposure to wet or muddy conditions, bacteria, fungi, or mites invading softened skin. Feathered breeds and horses in damp environments are more susceptible.
  3. What are the symptoms of scratches in horses?
    • Common symptoms include redness, swelling, heat, and the formation of scabs or crusts in the affected area. In severe cases, horses may exhibit lameness or reluctance to bear weight on the affected limb.
  4. How can I prevent scratches in my horse?
    • To prevent scratches, maintain cleanliness by regularly grooming and removing mud or debris. Provide dry turnout areas, trim feathering if applicable, use proper bedding, and conduct regular inspections for early detection.
  5. How do I treat scratches in horses?
    • Treatment involves cleaning the affected area with mild soap and water, removing scabs carefully, and applying topical treatments recommended by a veterinarian. Protective barriers, systemic medications, bandaging, and rest may be part of the treatment plan.
  6. When should I consult a veterinarian for scratches?
    • Consult a veterinarian if the condition persists, there are signs of a systemic infection (fever, lethargy), the horse shows severe lameness, or the affected area appears hot, swollen, or has a foul odor.


Scratches in horses, though common, require careful attention and proactive measures for prevention and treatment. By understanding the causes, recognizing the symptoms, and implementing proper care practices, horse owners can effectively manage this dermatological condition. Regular grooming, maintaining dry living conditions, and seeking veterinary advice when needed contribute to the overall well-being of your equine companion. Remember, a healthy horse is a happy horse, and your dedication to their skin health plays a crucial role in their comfort and vitality.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top