How to Prevent & Treat Scratches

how to treat scratches blog - image of horse hooves running in mud

When it gets wet and muddy outside, the chance that your horse will develop pastern dermatitis – commonly called scratches, but also known as greasy heal, swamp fever, dew poisoning or mud rash – increases dramatically. At the least, pastern dermatitis is an unsightly condition, and at the worst it can lead to serious health issues. So let’s talk about how to prevent and treat scratches.


Early symptoms of scratches include swollen skin and possibly some small scabby bumps.  If allowed to progress, scabby crusts form on the back of the pastern, often in a line resembling a scratch or scratches.  It is more common on the hind legs, though it occurs on the front legs as well. In general, light colored skin is a little more susceptible than dark skin. The condition can be exacerbated by long “feathers” of hair around the fetlock and pastern which keep the area from drying.  Left untreated, increased swelling further up the leg, infection and lameness are possible. So what can the concerned horse owner do?


Scratches is caused by extended wet/dry cycles that strip away natural oils on the skin around the pastern and lower limb, especially the back of the pastern just above the hoof.  This causes the skin to become chapped and raw, which opens the door for microbial infections caused by bacteria or fungi.  A mite infestation can also be a cause.  Imagine soaking your hands in water for many hours, then drying them out quickly, and repeating this cycle until they are raw and splitting, then adding a layer of dirt. Oh, and don’t forget to cover everything with a wet glove to simulate the damp hair on your horse’s leg. Not ideal!


Of course, preventing scratches in the first place is the best answer.  Here are a few tips:

  1. Consider clipping long hair around the lower legs – sometimes referred to as a “mud clip” – before the wet/mud season begins.  For some breeds you’ll want to keep those beautiful long feathers.  If so, you can just lift up the top parts of feathers and trim the back of the pastern.  This will help allow that skin to stay dryer while leaving the characteristic feathers intact.
  2. Keeping the footing dry inside the stall and turnout area will help tremendously; though understandably, this is not always possible 100% of the time.
  3. If the dampness is more likely from dew on the grass instead of mud, try turning your horse out a little later after the dew has dried.
  4. Picking out hooves twice a week at minimum is good practice if your horse is at risk for hoof infection caused by wet conditions.  Take note of the condition of the pastern skin at this time. Is the whole area matted and wet?  Is the skin puffy?  Do you feel any bumps or scabs?  Early detection is the best medicine – before this turns into a full-blown case of scratches.


However, if your horse does get a case of scratches there is still hope!  Follow these steps to deal with a case of scratches:

  1. Clip away the long hair around the affected area.
  2. Gently wash with a shampoo the helps treat fungal and bacterial skin conditions such as Absorbine® Fungasol® Shampoo.  As you wash, try to gently remove scabs, but be careful about pulling too hard on stubborn scabs as it could be painful, and you do not want to cause bleeding and new scabs.
  3.  Dry the area with towels, or if your horse will allow it, use a hair dryer. Having the area completely dry is vital to the healing process.
  4. Apply an ointment that helps to treat fungal and bacterial skin conditions like Fungasol® Ointment to the affected area every other day, and continue gently removing the scabs. Alternately, use the convenient Fungasol® Spray as your continued treatment.  Fungasol features the revolutionary Biopolysan® booster ingredient, derived from coconut.
  5. If the affected area doesn’t start to respond to treatment, or if the horse has a severe case of scratches with leg swelling or lameness, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Important: Scratches can easily return if allowed to. It will likely take several weeks of persistent attention to fully treat.  Don’t give up!

How To Prevent & Treat Scratches

Find Fungasol Shampoo, Ointment and Spray to help treat scratches and other skin infections at absorbine.com/products/grooming/Fungasol

Read a good review here: Behind the Bit Blog

12 comments on “How to Prevent & Treat Scratches”

  1. Jason says:

    How long can fungusol shampoo be left on a mature dog with a persistent yeast infection, on back tail and rump area?

    1. Sean says:

      We’d recommend you work Fungasol Shampoo in creating a lather, then let it sit for 20 minutes before rinsing off.

  2. Arielle says:

    Is it possible to use the ointment under feathers or is there something else you recommend in addition to the shampoo? The horse I lease seems to have scratches or crud that could lead to scratches. The owner doesn’t want the feathers clipped, but I’m anxious to give him some relief.

    1. Sean says:

      Hi Arielle, we’d highly recommend using Fungasol Ointment under hoof feathers, it is ideal for that use as it’s thick and can help repel water and it stays on a long time. During turnout, you could consider applying wraps to hold the longest feathers up off of the pastern area if you can’t trim them at all.

  3. Tracy says:

    Should you bag your horses heavy tail to help prevent scratches? I am wondering if the moisture in his tail keeps his legs damp. It has been raining a lot here!!

    1. Sean says:

      That’s not a bad idea either – it will help keep it clean as well. Unless he needs it for fly defense!

  4. Patricia Robinson says:

    Can I use Therapeutic Hoofflex to treat or prevent scratches? It has an antibacterial ingredient and repels moisture.

    1. Team Absorbine says:

      Hello Patricia, you make good points about Hooflex Therapeutic’s active ingredients fighting bacteria and fungus (both of which can contribute to Scratches) however we would not recommend this product for use on a horse’s skin. Some of the ingredients can be irritating to the skin if already irritated and could make it feel worse. We’d recommend our Fungasol Ointment which is gentle yet powerful. It’s perfect for clearing up scratches (pastern dermatitis). Great question! We wish you and your horses the best. -Team Absorbine

  5. April says:

    my Belgian will not let us shave her feathering and fights sedation and has had scratches ever since i got her from an auction and Amish owned her and don’t like her back feet messed with can someone tell me what can I try that I don’t have to cut the feathering on hind feet

    1. Team Absorbine says:

      Hi April, great question, it’s one we’ve heard before too. If they are long enough, try braiding her feathers! Or possibly just using a rubber band to keep them collected. This will keep the hair from blanketing the pastern and allow airflow to the skin, keeping it drier. Dry is the key to keeping scratches away. We recommend our Fungasol Ointment also to keep moisture away and treat existing scratches (pastern dermatitis). -Team Absorbine

  6. Becky L. Malseed says:

    Why does it say do not let your dog ingest when you’re applying it to where he is chewing? What are the consiquences?
    I have a rotty chewing his tail till it bleeds!
    Have tried EVERYTHING! HELP!
    thank you

    1. Team Absorbine says:

      Hello Becky, this article is about treating specific skin conditions on horses. For any product we make that can be used on dogs, it’s a matter of how much they are allowed to ingest. It is OK if they lick a little of it off, but not good if you are constantly applying it and they are licking it right off. Hope this helps and that your rotty finds relief! For dogs with itchy hot spots we recommend our new breakthrough product Silver Honey Hot Spot & Wound Care which comes in a spray or ointment form. You can find it here: https://absorbinepet.com/products/silver-honey-hot-spot-wound-care-ointment

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