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Scratches: Will His Heels Ever Heal?

What do you suggest for the treatment of scratches?
– KL, Illinois

What is the most effective medical treatment for scratches (pastern dermatitis)? For the first time, my horse has them below his front fetlocks. I have been told conflicting advice by two different vets. One says to remove the scabs, the other said not to. I have been scrubbing them and spraying them, and doing my best to keep my gelding’s feet clean and dry. What medication and treatment do you recommend? A prescription is fine, as I will be able to get it from my vet. Thank you and God bless.
– TC, Pennsylvania

Dear KL and TC,

First of all, let me empathize with you as someone who’s been both on the owner side and veterinarian side of this particular skin issue. Treating scratches can be a very frustrating task for all involved, including the horse. And I’m not surprised you’re getting conflicting information. Unfortunately what that means is there’s no one, best treatment. What works for some people in some parts of the country during some parts of the year doesn’t work for others. What I do know is that if you find a cleansing system, treatment or better yet, prevention, that works, keep using it! Don’t switch from product to product based on the latest fad or newest launch or something you read in a magazine or online.

One thing I’ve personally learned over the years is the less water the better. So no soaking and especially no harsh or drying cleansers like iodine or chlorhexidene scrub. That just sets up a vicious cycle of chapping, dry and broken skin, and more scratches. But, you ask, how do I clean the back of my horse’s pasterns, especially the crusty scabs? My wound cleansing method of choice for scratches is a product called Dermacloth. I keep several eight-cloth packets in my truck, trailer, tack box, medicine cabinet and hidden around the barn (yes, hidden, as I want to make sure I have access to these in an emergency). I use Dermacloths for everything from scratches to rain rot to fungus and even to minor wound cleanup and cold winter “bathing.”

The real trick comes next though: selecting an appropriate leave-on treatment after the area is made as clean as possible without irritating it. Some veterinarians have developed their own, home-made concoction of steroids, antibiotics, anti-fungals and other ingredients that is very effective. If your vet has such a product and it works, great! Otherwise, you may have to experiment yourself with these ingredients or other products such as Desitin (yes, the baby rash ointment), or ones containing furacin, tea tree oil, silver, ichthammol, or other active ingredients. I recommend keeping your veterinarian in the loop throughout this process, as scratches can get very serious very quickly, leading to lameness and infection which may require additional treatment.

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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+

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8 comments on “Scratches: Will His Heels Ever Heal?
  1. Sara S says:

    I’ve also heard that sunlight makes it worse, and that white footed horses are more prone to it. Is any of that true?

    • Kate D says:

      In my experience pink skin is more likely to get scratch. I have a gray paint with pink skin and fight scratches every spring.

    • Judy says:

      It has been my experience that white footed horses get it easier, but any horse can get it. I have had luck with furacin salve after cleansing and drying. Also, occasionally bacon grease (from frying bacon!) works on some types of chafing. We had standardbred race horses and were always fighting hopple burns until the horses’ skin got toughened up in the area where they rubbed. Bacon grease was the best for that!

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Sara – Thank you for your question! Because scratches can be caused by a variety of things, it’s certainly possible that changes in the environment like sunlight and air and humidity could have varying effects on healing. However, experts are fairly certain that white-footed horses only seem more prone to it because the condition is more noticeable on white legs, not that it occurs more often on them. Please let us know if you have any other questions!

    • JDaniels says:

      Scratches rx. It’s amazing. I have treated scratches a million different times and ways. This stuff works. Just got a rand I’m sample from my vet and it really works. It’s oily and starts to work after 1 treatment. Amazing results in a week.

  2. keelari says:

    When my old gelding had scratches, my vet gave me chlorahexidene scrub and I scrubbed him every day for about a week and after each scrub, we put on vet creame ( white plastic jar with a blue lid?) and on top of that, zinc-oxide. It worked great for my horse and they never came back. To all you others out there who asked, my horse is a chestnut and he got scratches on his front leg that also happened to be white with pink skin. The other front leg is chestnut with no scratches. Hope this helps any!

  3. Haley Gage says:

    My Palomino developed scratches when she was leased out due to wet conditions. When I got her home again i scrubbed her once with chlorhexidine scrub, dried it off thoroughly and then pasted Desitin on her and kept her in a dry environment and within a week or so it was all gone and has never come back. Now on that same note draft horses because of their heavy feathers tend to maintain a moist environment and so far I havent seen anything work on them except to clip[ off the hair which ruins the look.

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