It’s coming to that time of year again; nights are drawing in, temperatures are dropping, and we are all feeling under the weather and dosed up on Lemsip; and it’s not just the humans! The chilly autumn and winter weather can result in us all feeling less than our best, and this also applies to our horses. As the mercury drops, we asked out horse health expert to identify the most common skin conditions you may encounter, as well as the key things you should be looking out for, and the preventative steps you can take to keep your equine friend in tip top condition throughout the winter months.
What can go wrong?
There are two main conditions which are particularly prevalent during this time of year; mud fever and rain scald. The former affects the lower limbs of the horse, whereas the latter is more commonly found on the loins, sides and saddle area.
Both of these conditions are caused by a bacteria called dermatophilus congolensis, which can remain dormant in the skin without causing any issues until the horse is introduced into wet or muddy conditions which compromise their skin – very common during the damp winter months. The bacteria is then activated, penetrating the skin and allowing infection to set in.
What are the symptoms?
As pet owners, we get to know our horses very well, and can quickly pick up when something is amiss. With both of these conditions, scabs will appear on the skin, and the area will become hot and painful for the horse when touched. With mud fever, the lower limbs may also swell, leading to possible lameness.
As with any concerns about your horses health, your first point of contact should be your vet, who can confirm a diagnosis. Following this, you should immediately remove your horse from the wet environment. All scabs will also need to be removed, as they can harbour the bacteria and prevent your horse from healing. The affected area should then be washed thoroughly with a medicated shampoo, rinsed, and completely dried, before a cream is added; your vet will have recommendations as to which is best for your horse. Obviously, the ideal solution for both of you is to prevent the infection from developing in the first place. Minimise your horses exposure to mud as much as possible with raised shelters and hard standing areas to elevate them from the ground, and grass mats to minimise the time spent in muddy conditions. Ointment can also be applied as a protective barrier, though this should be avoided if an infection has already been diagnosed.
As well as unpleasant skin ailments, there are other unwanted visitors which can affect your four legged friend during the darker months. Lice are in their element in frosty weather and cosy winter coats, and tend to congregate where the hair is densest; the mane, tail, head and fetlocks, though they can be found all over the body. There are two main types; ‘sucking lice’ feed on the blood and can cause anaemia, whilst ‘biting lice’ feed on the skin cells and oils found within the coat, causing itching and irritation. You may also encounter mites; chorioptic (‘heel’ or ‘itchy’) mange is often found, as the name suggests, on the lower limbs, whilst forage mites hide themselves in bedding, feed or forage, and present themselves by irritating the muzzle, head and limbs. Also a risk is the highly contagious ringworm; definitely not something you want making friends with one horse, let alone a whole yard! This fungal infection can spread like wildfire in the correct conditions, and is passed on rapidly through direct or indirect contact.
What are the symptoms?
A lice infection is easy to spot; your horse will have a coat which appears dull and in poor condition, with matted or loss of hair. There may also be open sores where your horse have rubbed to relieve itching. The lice themselves may also be visible in some cases. Mange can be seen through your horses actions – stamping or scratching is often used in an attempt to relieve the itching. Crusting lesions and thickened skin will also appear in the affected area. Consider approaching with are as some animals may also kick in an attempt to stop the itching. Circles are the one to spot with the dreaded ringworm; infected animals will develop circular patches of inflamed skin which may also be flaking, crusting and losing hair. This is a distinctive symptom, so keep a close eye on your horse to immediately identify any changes to their coat.
All horses on the yard must be treated; lice can be spread through direct contact between the horse and their contaminated equipment, including rugs and grooming kits as well as saddlery. It is far easier to treat all horses and equipment at once, rather than face an infestation later! A pyrethroid based insecticide is required, and for a full treatment, repeated 14 days later. The symptoms associated with mites sometimes clear up on their own once contaminated bedding and other material is removed. If they persist however, you should contact your vet, as further treatment may be required. As with mites, ringworm may resolve itself without treatment. Due to the highly infectious nature however, it is highly recommended that you contact your vet and seek treatment immediately, to prevent the spread of infection to other horses and humans in the vicinity.
Autumn and winter can be tricky times for horse owners, and the prevalence of certain conditions only exacerbates the difficulties. The good news is that with due diligence and appropriate precautions, there are a number of steps you can take to reduce the risk of your horse developing these skin problems, and remaining happy and healthy even through the colder weather.
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