06 Dec 2019

Elite Equine and Mud Fever Demystified


Severn Edge Equine Vets regularly deal with this challenging condition and here they share some of their expertise:

“As the name suggests, mud fever is most frequently seen in horses during wet, muddy conditions but this is not always the case.



Initially, the skin at the back of the horse’s pastern or heel becomes inflamed and thickened before progressing around and up the leg. Usually, the lesions will only go as far as the fetlock but in extreme cases the cannon can be affected as far as the knee or hock. There may be a wet look to the leg where serum oozes from the affected area which may progress to a white, pussy discharge. These discharges will dry and harden into thick crusts that harbor the bacteria within. The more severe cases will become very painful and hot and the whole lower limb may become swollen and the horse may become lame.

Occasionally, the mud fever bacteria may also infect skin over the quarters and along the back of a horse with typical “paintbrush” scabs, this is known as Rain Scald and is treated in a similar way to uncomplicated mud fever.



  • Traditionally mud fever was blamed on a bacterium; however, it is now recognized that there are many factors that can contribute to the symptoms.
  • If the skin is damaged in any way microorganisms can take a hold, multiply and start to cause problems.
  • Leg mites can create damage and cause thickening of the skin, predisposing to bacterial entry. They will irritate the skin and lead to self-trauma, allowing bacterial infection to take over. Horses with leg mites are often very itchy and stamp their feet. They may even bite and scratch their own limbs. The mud fever will not improve if the mites aren’t treated as well.
  • Wet conditions cause the skin to soften. Mud will rub against this softened skin causing abrasions to the surface.
  • Lots of work in certain sandy arenas and schools can be quite traumatic to the skin.
  • Additionally, pastures with copious, rough vegetation or spiky weeds can cause trauma to the skin.
  • Excessive leg washing will weaken the skin and remove the natural grease that acts as a barrier resulting in cracks which can allow the entry of bacteria.
  • Certain equine bedding can act as an irritant both physically (straw) or chemically (high ammonia from urine in deep litter).
  • Boots and bandages incorrectly placed or inappropriately used can also cause damage to the vital skin barrier.

It is important to recognize that systemic diseases such as Cushing’s can reduce the horse’s immune system making it easier for bacterial to gain a hold and undoubtedly, certain breeds of horse are genetically pre-disposed to mud fever.



Your vet will want to examine the horse and will ask you lots of questions regarding its management and if there are other horses on the yard that are affected or have mites. Diagnosis can often be made on clinical signs alone with a detailed history.



There are many treatments available and no one is a ‘cure-all’. The basis is to treat any underlying conditions such as mite infection or contact allergy, remove infection and allow the skin’s natural barrier to heal.

    • Usually this will involve stabling the horse as this removes the horse from mud contamination and the wet-dry cycle. Turnout in an arena may be possible if it is dry but sand can be an irritant and the horse may still get ‘chapped’ skin.
    • Heavily feathered horses will benefit from having their legs clipped.
    • Removal of scabs can be a controversial area, as some bacteria are anaerobic – it cannot survive in the presence of oxygen.
    • Hibiscrub has excellent antibacterial and some antifungal properties if used appropriately. It should NOT be used NEAT – the ideal dilution is 0.1%.
    • Standard recommendations are that you soak the legs in warm water and dilute Hibiscrub and remove any scabs that come away easily without forcing them. Repeat this every 3 to 4 days. It is very important to rinse well with warm water and to use a clean towel to dry the legs thoroughly afterwards (ideally a clean towel for each leg so as not to spread any infection around!).
    • Antibacterial cream such as Silver Sulfadiazine (Flamazine) may be applied daily and after washing the legs.
    • Other treatments that may be prescribed on a case by case basis are
    • Systemic antibiotics
    • Topical antibiotics
    • Pain relief/anti-inflammatories- are important if the horse has painful scabs. Making the horse more comfortable is important for their welfare but is also likely to make them more compliant when it comes to picking off the scabs or applying treatment!


A better course of action is to leave the mud to dry naturally on the legs and then brush it off the following day when dry.

Leg bandages can be applied over the mud and these bandages will act to ‘wick’ away the moisture allowing the mud to be brushed off the next day.

Traditionally leaving the lower legs unclipped was thought to protect the legs from infection but we now realize that mud fever is more common in hairier legs due to the fact they take longer to dry out.

However, if there is an underlying cause for the mud fever resolution of infection will not occur until this cause has been addressed and treated, such as leg mites or Cushing’s disease for example.” [1]


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