Should I pick my horses’ scabs?

This blog aims to provide our horse owners a better understanding of mud fever, a skin condition often seen in winter. We will go over the clinical signs, treatment options, recommended management changes and when to contact us at South Moor Equine Vets.

So, what is Mud Fever?

Mud fever, also known as pastern dermatitis, is a skin ailment affecting horses, particularly prevalent in wet muddy conditions (hello UK weather!). The condition presents as inflammation, swelling and skin irritation on the lower limbs, accompanied by the formation of scabs and oozing sores. It is usually found on the back of the pastern, most commonly on the hind legs. The bacteria that cause the condition are able to enter the skin via small abrasions from mud, sand, vegetation, mite damage. Some systemic diseases such as Cushing’s can also reduce the horse’s immune system making it easier for infection to take hold.

Clinical Signs

Early detection will help prevent the condition getting out of hand. Observe the lower limbs, usually the pastern area, for swelling, sensitivity and scabs.  At the start there may be some hair loss and crusting, but this can progress to thickened skin folds. The leg may appear greasy from the serum that oozes from the sores. The discharge will harden into thick crusty scabs that shelter the bacteria within them.

We will diagnose mud fever from a combination of history and clinical signs. If the problem does not respond to our initial treatment we may want to take biopsies to rule out different causes.

There are some immune mediated diseases such as pastern and cannon leukocytoclastic vasculitis that can look very similar to mud fever, these cases are often seen in the summer and may be treated differently to mud fever.


While various over the counter remedies exist, consulting one of our equine vets at South Moor is advisable. We can provide medicated shampoos, creams and anti-inflammatories to effectively combat the condition as well as systemic medication in the worse cases. The main aim is to treat the underlying cause, such as mites, contact allergies, remove infection and allow the skins natural barrier to heal.

This usually means removing from the wet, muddy conditions. Heavily feathered horses may need to have their legs clipped, to allow easier visualization, faster more effective drying and topical treatment application.

Should you remove the scabs? The short answer is yes. The scabs harbour the bacteria causing the infection and it cannot survive when exposed to air. But the scabs are very painful for the horse. We recommend soaking the legs in warm water and dilute hibi-scrub so that they come away easily, then rinse with clean water and dry the legs with a clean towel (one for each leg). Repeat this every 3 days. Sometimes applications of cream and dressings first can assist with non-traumatic scab removal.

We may give you medicated creams to apply daily after the legs are dry and scabs removed.

Management changes

Preventative measures are always best when it comes to conditions like mud fever. Latest research shows that it’s the constant wetting of legs that predisposes to mud fever. So we now recommend if you’re unable to thoroughly dry your horses legs after washing them off, then leaving the mud on to dry naturally and brushing off is better. Barrier lotions such as sudocrem and pig oil can be effective at keeping legs dry- so long as they are dry when it’s applied! Reducing the amount of poached areas in the field will help minimise the risk of mud fever.

For simple cases of mud fever then the prognosis for a full recovery is very good, given that the correct treatment is administered and a management plan is followed including the preventative measures discussed.

Get in touch if you think your horse could be suffering from mud fever.