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.

For more reading on this subject, visit:

Lydia F. Gray, DVM MA, currently serves as the Medical Director/Staff Veterinarian for SmartPak Equine. Prior to joining SmartPak, Dr. Gray served as the first-ever Director of Owner Education for the American Association of Equine Practitioners. She has authored numerous articles in publications such as The Horse, Horse Illustrated, Western Horseman and a variety of veterinary journals and magazines. Dr. Gray is also a frequent speaker at horse expos, veterinary conventions and other locations. After graduating with honors from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and receiving her Master's Degree in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication, she practiced at the Tremont Veterinary Clinic for several years. Dr Gray is active in the American Veterinary Medical Association and Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association and enjoys training and showing her trakehner Newman in her spare time.  Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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