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Treating Scratches

I discovered that my draft horse has scratches tonight. I’ve been reading about different treatments, but thought I should ask around (you, my vet) about the best treatment before starting something. I have also read that you should clip the area short and keep it clean & dry during the healing time. Thank you! LH, Illinois

Dear LH,

My answer to you is–absolutely talk to your vet, because you don’t want to be weeks or months into treatment, have the condition get worse, then try to bring your vet on board. He or she will probably be a little irritated! Hopefully the information and advice you’re given sounds a bit like this:

Scratches isn’t so much a bacterial or fungal infection from one organism, it’s wet/dry cycles causing the skin on the back of the pastern to chap (much like your own hands or lips). Then various microorganisms that are already in the environment or on your horse’s skin take advantage of these tiny cracks to invade and multiply, leading to redness, pain, swelling and even oozy discharge that crusts over.

You’re right, the first thing you should do is remove any long hair that’s in the way (which is a shame in a draft horse). Sometimes scissors can get the job done, sometimes clippers are needed, and sometimes the hair must be shaved down to the skin to allow healing.

Next is removing scabs and dirt. This can be tricky. Some veterinarians recommend soaking the pasterns JUST THIS ONE TIME so you can soften the crusts and gently remove them. But don’t soak anymore or you’re duplicating the very environment that created this problem. Your goal throughout all this treatment is to be as gentle to the skin as possible–remember, it’s already injured. So if you use soap, use the mildest you can find, like Ivory, or VERY dilute chlorhexidene (Nolvasan) or iodine (Betadine). There’s even a new silver-based wash that may be just the thing for scratches.

Carefully pat the area dry. Now the question is: what should you put on it? Well, we’re trying to accomplish three things: 1) kill any bacteria or fungi present; 2) reduce redness, pain and swelling; and 3) provide a protective barrier to further chapping. Here’s where you just have to experiment, because scratches responds to different things on different horses. Hey, if there was one thing that always worked for every horse, then there wouldn’t be 20 gazillion different products and homemade recipes!

The newest topicals for scratches (ie old-fashioned remedies that have become popular again) contain silver and tea tree oil. My favorite though is ichthammol, because it does all three things listed above. I also like Fura-Zone for the same reason. Some people mix up their own antibiotic ointments with antifungals with anti-inflammatories; your vet may do this for you. Panalog is a brand name that has all these components already. The important thing is to stop using this type of product once the infection and swelling have gone away because they inhibit skin healing, the next step in the healing process. At this point, you may just want to use Desitin (that’s right, good ol’ diaper rash ointment) or Vaseline or something else with no active ingredients, just a gentle barrier to further chapping.

To wrap or not to wrap, that is the final question. I’ve done it both ways and tend to lean towards no, although you may want to the first day or two after you’ve cleaned it really well and it’s just on its way to healing properly.

I hope I haven’t depressed you, scratches aren’t life-threatening but they can be very frustrating to deal with. Be patient (and gentle!)

Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

Posted in Skin, Coat & Hooves

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14 comments on “Treating Scratches
  1. Patrick Ryan says:

    Zephyr’s Garden anti-fungal salve. It is fabulous. I put the website above. My TB/Clyde gelding gets scratches all over his back every year and this stuff is all natural, smells good, stays in place, and works. Good luck!

  2. Suzie says:

    My friend had a year long battle with this using all of the above recommendations which did indeed knock it down a little but did not heal it completely. Finally her new vet suggested using Frontline Spray and it was like a miracle cure! No more scratches! Healed up immediately and any reoccurances were small and easily treated with another application of the spray.

    • Julie says:

      Where can I get this stuff? I have Gypsy Vanners and am constantly battling scratches…even in dry conditions.

      • SmartPak SmartPak says:

        Hi Julie – Was there a particular product you were looking to purchase that you read about in this blog? Let us know and we’d be happy to direct you to the right place!

        • Anita Zander says:

          Where can this be found? Do you have any new products since this article was written?

          • SmartPak SmartPak says:

            Hi Anita, we would love to help you find the product you’re looking for! Is there a specific one you had in mind? – SmartPaker Casey

  3. There is a great new product called Touchless Care Silver Spray…works great and speeds up the healing time.

  4. Denny york says:

    Want to know how to prevent leg Utscratches in draft horses

  5. mary says:

    I have been battling scratches on my horse for 6 months and have tried almost everything, any suggestions???????????

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Mary, I’m sorry to hear about your struggle with scratches, that is no fun. First-off, I would make sure that your veterinarian is in the loop about your horse’s situation. Sometimes if you’ve made all the right management changes and tried every topical, it’s time to start thinking outside the box. You could consider a supplement to support your horse’s immune health, so that his or her body is able to mount a normal immune response. For example, one SmartPaker here had a similar situation in her gelding who struggled with scratches over the course of an entire winter. After trying numerous topicals, she added an immune health supplement called Advanced Protection Formula (APF – into his SmartPaks, and had wonderful results. Every horse is different, and I would absolutely keep up with your topical approach since often scratches require a multi-pronged approach, but if you’re still struggling with your horse, I wouldn’t hesitate to give a supplement a try. – Dr. Lydia Gray

    • Jen says:

      I adopted an OTTB and I have been fighting an odd case of scratches for almost an entire year ! FINALLY I have found something that works for us,.. and I wish I had all the $$$$ I spent on products that DO NOT work back in my pocket. Anyways… I found that washing (full strength-Soap directly on skin) with ‘Fungasol’ equine wash and letting it stay on the skin for 5 min. or so and then rubbing it into the skin well before rinsing. Dry the legs well… and then apply a salve called Derma-Vet Ointment and rub in well. I have been using this salve for 4 days and already see a huge improvement.
      You will need to get the ointment from your vet.

  6. michelle says:

    I’m struggling with scratches on my gelding but have started treatment and hoping for quick results. Is there anything I can give my gelding to help with pain and swelling??? He is so uncomfortable and even tries to lay down when I apply the ointment.

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Michelle, I applaud you for wanting to give your horse the best treatment possible for his scratches. Dealing with scratches can be very frustrating for everyone involved! Since different horses and different cases respond well to different products, the best thing to do is to work closely with your veterinarian. They’ll be able to help you come up with the best plan for your horse to help keep him as comfortable as possible while he recovers. – Dr. Lydia Gray

  7. Beverly George says:

    I have a Shire mare that has scratches on the front of both cannon bones. They never completely go away. I’ve been using a home remedy but it always comes back. Strange place for scratches. Any thoughts???

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