Pastern dermatitis, often known as scratches, is a common problem of inflammation of the skin behind or around the pastern of the horse. In most cases, the infection is caused by bacteria or a fungus that enters the skin through any openings in the skin – small wounds, cracks or even chapping. The most common signs of scratches are scabs and crusting around the pasterns. There may be a clear liquid substance leaking from the area.
Treatment is fairly straightforward. Gently wash the area with an antibacterial soap or solution, then thoroughly dry the area – both the hair and the skin. It is important to keep the area around the pastern clean and dry to prevent reinfection. It may help to clip the hair around the pastern. You can also apply a thick ointment to help protect the pastern as well as remove the scabs and promote healing. If the area doesn’t heal in a couple of weeks, contact your veterinarian to see if stronger medications or cleaning solutions are necessary.
While scratches aren’t a life-threatening illness nor is the treatment difficult or long-term, it is always better to prevent the problem in the first place. Scratches seem to develop when your horse has prolonged exposure to wetness. Moisture from bedding or mud can weaken the skin and make it susceptible to cuts and possible infection. The following ways will help you prevent this problem.
Keep stalls clean. This means not only picking up manure in the stalls and paddocks, but being sure to remove any urine-soaked bedding. After the area has been clean, you can add some stall freshener like PDZ, but allow the area to dry thoroughly before adding bedding to the spot.
Keep paddocks, shelters and all turnout areas dry. Since moisture is bad for the horse’s skin and is the leading cause of scratches, having him stand in wet grass or, even worse, ankle high mud is just asking for trouble. During wet weather, use a sacrifice area with well-drained footing like crushed gravel to help keep feet and pasterns dry. You can even use stall mats like the ones by Classic Equine Equipment in paddocks or in high traffic muddy areas such as the opening to a shelter.
Know your bedding. Some types of bedding may be coarse or may have been chemically treated. While this won’t affect all horses, check to see if your horse’s bedding is retaining moisture or otherwise irritating his pasterns.
Be kind to pasterns. Bell boots are helpful in preventing horses from stepping on their front pasterns with their back feet, but make sure the boots fit properly and are not rubbing against the pastern and causing irritation. Once a horse gets his legs wet from walking through a puddle or wet grass, everything seems to stick to them. Sand from an arena can also cause irritation if it isn’t brushed off before putting on leg wraps or boots. Also, if your horse has been standing in mud, be sure to brush or wash his legs off. However, take care and don’t become too aggressive in cleaning the pastern areas. Remember that too much water will soften the skin and make it inviting for bacteria. Brushing dried mud with a stiff brush can cause those tiny cuts through which bacteria love to enter. Finally, some people like to keep the pastern area neat and clean by clipping – just make sure the clippers are clean and you don’t nick this sensitive area.
With these tips, you can help prevent your horse from getting scratches or keep it from coming back.