Horse Scratches: What It Is & What to Do About It

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You’ve heard the term before. Scratches. While most of us picture small cuts in the skin, scratches in the horse world is something totally different. Scratches (also called pastern dermatitis, dew poisoning, greasy heel, or mud fever), is a problem commonly seen on a horse’s lower limbs. This issue is caused by a variety of skin conditions including viral, bacterial, fungal, or parasitic infections. Horses in excessively wet or muddy environments are at greater risk of getting scratches. Keep reading to learn what to be on the lookout for!

What Is It?

Scratches is a persistent dermatitis identified by hypertrophy (enlargement of the skin cells) and oozing on the rear surface of the pastern and fetlock. Scratches is most commonly associated with poor stable hygiene, but no specific cause has been pinpointed. Draft horses are particularly susceptible because their leg feathers can trap dirt and moisture. It has also been noted that horses with light-colored legs or white socks are more susceptible to getting scratches.

What Causes Scratches?

Constant moisture can become irritating on delicate skin, which can cause inflammation and redness. Muddy or dirty surroundings can create a playground for bacteria and fungi. Mild cases are usually treatable with some simple cleaning and topical treatment. In severe cases – or if the leg becomes hot, swollen, and painful – it is a sign that the infection has become more serious. In situations like these, it’s best to contact your veterinarian for further instructions.


  1. Avoid turning out affected horses in pastures with mud, water, or sand, which can worsen the condition.
  2. Keep horses in clean, dry stalls during wet weather.
  3. Do not turn horses out until the morning dew has dried.
  4. If you suspect allergic dermatitis, try an alternate source of bedding that isn’t treated or aromatic.
  5. Clip heavy feathers over the pasterns to reduce moisture retention.
  6. Clean affected skin immediately after exercise, using an antiseptic shampoo.


Avoid keeping your horse in muddy or wet areas (this includes fields with tall grass or during heavy rain or dew). Keep all boots and wraps clean. Be sure to check your horse’s legs regularly for any signs of redness, flakiness, or irritation, and begin treating the area as soon as you detect a problem. Pay extra attention to horses with feathered legs, since it can be harder to see the skin under the thick, long hair.

Carolina Equine Hospital

Do you suspect your horse may be dealing with scratches? Give us a call at 336-349-4080 to make an appointment so we can assess the situation. We service equines in the Piedmont Triad and have an emergency doctor on call 24/7.