Managing Mud Fever in Horses

Managing Mud Fever in Horses

Mud fever or mud rash, also known as pastern dermatitis or cracked heel, is a skin condition that affects the lower legs of horses – although in severe cases can affect the skin over the quarters and along the back of a horse. It is most common during wet and muddy conditions (hence the name ‘Mud Fever’) but it can occur at any time.

Carriagehouse Insurance provides tailored insurance cover for your horse, which specialises in protecting you if your horse requires unexpected veterinary treatment for such things as Mud Fever.

Causes of Mud Fever

Constant exposure to mud, water, or sweat can create a damp environment which is ideal for bacterial growth. Traditionally the most common culprit is the penetration of Dermatophilus congolensis into the epidermis (Higgins and Synder, 2006), however it is now recognised that other culprits which can lead to the breaks down the skin’s natural defences are Staphylococcus and pseudomonas species, as well as mites and fungi.

Thus cuts, scrapes, or other existing skin conditions can create easy entry points for these bacteria. Furthermore, friction from mud, dirt, or excessive leg rubbing can cause irritation and lead to further breakdown of the skin’s protective barrier, thus worsening the condition.

Signs and Symptoms

If you notice any of the following signs or symptoms of mud fever, it is incredibly important to seek veterinary support:

  • Soreness: the affected area will be tender and sensitive to touch.
  • Swelling: The legs may become swollen and puffy.
  • Scabs and Crusts: Crusts and scabs will form on the skin’s surface.
  • Hair Loss: Patches of hair may fall out, leaving raw skin exposed.
  • Discharge: A white, yellow, or green discharge might ooze from the affected area.
  • Lameness: In severe cases, lameness can develop due to pain and discomfort.

Breeds At Risk of Mud Rash

Feathered breeds like Cobs, Clydesdales and Friesians, are more prone to trapping moisture against the skin and therefore harbouring bacteria. However, breeds such as Thoroughbreds or Arabs, have thin skin which can be easily damaged and therefore more susceptible to bacterial infection.

Horses with white markings on their lower legs may also have thinner, more sensitive skin in these areas. Additionally, white markings can make a horse more susceptible to photosensitivity and sunburn, increasing the risk of mud fever.

In addition, horses with compromised immune systems or underlying health issues might be more at risk as they are less able to fight bacterial invasion.


Consulting with your veterinarian is of prime importance to catch this condition quickly before it spreads or develops complications and to ensure effective treatment.

There are a number of treatment options which your veterinarian might recommend:

Topical Treatments

Antibacterial creams or ointments are the mainstay of treatment and work to target the bacterial infection itself. Common options include:

  • Chlorhexidine: A broad-spectrum disinfectant used to kill bacteria on the skin’s surface.
  • Mupirocin: An antibiotic ointment effective against various bacteria commonly associated with mud fever.
  • Silver Sulfadiazine (Flamazine): An antibiotic cream with additional anti-inflammatory properties.

In mild cases, your vet might recommend drying agents like kaolin or zinc oxide powder to further dry the affected area and promote healing.

Antiseptics, like chlorhexidine, are used for initial cleaning and ongoing disinfection during bandage changes.


Bandaging plays a crucial role in mud fever treatment by protecting the area, as bandages prevent further irritation from dirt, debris, and rubbing. They also help to promote healing, by encouraging growth of new healthy tissue. Bandages can also help medications stay in contact with the affected area for optimal effectiveness.

However, bandaging requires proper technique, to avoid complications such as increased moisture build up or additional rubbing and irritation, which can make mud rash worse.

Your veterinarian will demonstrate the correct bandaging technique and advise on the frequency of bandage changes, which might be daily or every other day depending on the severity of the case and your ongoing treatment plan.

Additional Treatments

In severe cases with extensive bacterial infection or signs of cellulitis, your vet might prescribe oral antibiotics to combat the infection systemically.

If your horse experiences significant pain and discomfort due to inflammation or swelling, pain medication might be necessary to improve their comfort and well-being.

Ensuring your horse receives a well-balanced diet with all the necessary vitamins and minerals is crucial for overall health and promotes healing. In some cases, your vet might recommend dietary supplements to support the immune system and overall skin health.

Closely monitor your horse’s legs for signs of improvement or worsening. If there is no improvement or the condition seems to deteriorate, please consult your veterinarian promptly.

In some cases, a blood test may be taken to establish if there is an underlying cause of the disease present or a swab may be taken to cultivate the bacteria causing the infection.

Please Note:

The specific treatment regimen will be tailored by your veterinarian based on the severity of the infection, your horse’s individual needs, and response to treatment. Any of the above information must not be treated as medical advice and instead a guide to look into to learn more about mud fever in horses.

It’s crucial to follow your veterinarian’s instructions meticulously, including medication application, bandaging techniques, and hygiene protocols, to ensure a successful recovery and prevent complications.

While these details provide a better understanding of mud fever treatment, consulting a licensed veterinarian is essential for an accurate diagnosis and the most appropriate treatment plan for a horse.

Prevention of Mud Fever

During wet and muddy seasons, you may want to limit your horse’s turnout time in muddy paddocks or fields. Try to instead provide access to dry areas such as shelters, stalls, or paddocks with adequate drainage.

Where necessary, improve drainage in your horse’s turnout areas to prevent mud accumulation. Consider the possibility of creating drainage ditches or using gravel in high-traffic areas like gateways or watering stations.

Regularly clean and replace soiled bedding in stalls to prevent the build-up of moisture and bacteria.

Check regularly for, and treat, mites, fungal infections and wounds which may lead to bacterial infection.

If using any of the leg ‘chaps’ or mud fever boots, ensure that these are well fitted and comfortable for your horse to wear.

Horse Care Practices

Groom your horse daily, and pay particular attention to the pastern area. Remove any mud, dirt and debris build up which can harbour bacteria. It is recommended that you allow the mud to dry and brush with a soft bristled brush rather than washing the legs daily which can lead to chapping if they aren’t dried carefully.

For horses with feathered legs, consider clipping the fur around the pasterns during wet seasons to improve air circulation and prevent moisture build up. However, consult your veterinarian to ensure clipping is appropriate for your horse’s breed and individual needs.

In some instances, applying a thin layer of barrier oil/creams to the pastern area before turnout, especially during wet weather creates a physical barrier against moisture and irritants. However, to be effective the legs must be clean and dry prior to application, otherwise you risk providing a perfect breeding ground for bacterial growth.

Additional Tips

Regularly inspect your horse’s legs for any early signs of mud fever, such as swelling, redness, scabs or soreness. Early detection and intervention are crucial for preventing the condition from worsening.

Consistent preventative measures are important to minimise the risk of mud fever recurrence. By following these recommendations and consulting your veterinarian for personalised advice, you can help to keep your horse’s legs healthy and comfortable throughout the year.

If you introduce a new horse to your herd, keep them isolated for a period to monitor for any potential infections including mud fever.

Mud Fever Complications

While mud fever is usually treatable, neglecting it can lead to complications.

Cellulitis is a serious bacterial skin infection that can spread deeper into the tissues and become life-threatening if left untreated. Signs for this include increased swelling, redness, heat, and pain.

Lymphangitis involves inflammation of the lymph vessels, causing painful swelling and potentially leading to lameness.

Severe cases of mud fever can leave permanent scarring on the horse’s legs, which might affect their appearance and potentially cause discomfort.

Differential Diagnosis

Other skin conditions may mimic mud fever, so consulting a veterinarian for proper diagnosis is crucial. These conditions include:

  • Ringworm: A fungal infection causing circular patches of hair loss and crusty lesions.
  • Equine pastern dermatitis (EPD): An immune-mediated skin disease with similar symptoms to mud fever but not caused by bacteria.
  • Chondrodysplasia: A developmental disorder affecting the pastern joint, often mistaken for mud fever due to swelling and lameness.

Safeguarding Your Horses’ Future With Carriagehouse Insurance

Mud fever, although common, shouldn’t be taken lightly. By understanding the causes, symptoms, treatment options, and preventative measures, you can effectively manage this condition and ensure your horse’s well-being. Remember, early veterinary intervention is crucial for a speedy recovery and preventing complications.

To ensure your horse is covered for any unexpected vet treatment, learn more about our horse and pony insurance or get in touch with us at Carriagehouse Insurance.

Online Resources to Learn More

World Horse Welfare: Offers clear information on mud fever, covering the basics of the condition, signs to watch for, treatment options, and preventative measures.

Severn Edge Equine Vets: Provides a detailed article providing advice and information about mud fever, including images of horses with signs and symptoms so you know what to look out for.

The British Horse Society: Breaks down a user-friendly guide on the causes of mud fever, risk factors, treatment, and preventative measures to take.


Higgins A. J. and Snyder A.,J. (2006) The Equine Manual (second edition), Elsevier Ltd, London