Animal Care

Horse Health Tips For Winter

Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

The cold and wet of the winter months can lead to unexpected health problems for your horse ranging from fairly minor skin conditions to life-threatening respiratory disease and colic. Knowing what symptoms to look for, and how to prevent and treat potential problems, can save you tons of worry and, quite possibly, your horse’s life.

Skin Problems

One of the most common health problems during cold, wet months is “pastern dermatitis” – also known as scratches, mud fever, or greasy heel. Caused by the bacteria and/or fungus common in patches of deep, clingy mud, the condition presents as severe patches of crusting and oozing skin on your horse’s heel and pastern. You may also notice some alopecia – or hair loss – in the area.

To rid your horse of this painful condition, you’ll need to soak and gently remove the crusty patches of dead hair and skin. Clip the hair on the pastern and clean the area daily with medicated shampoo. Veterinary shampoos, such as Chlorhexiderm or Benzoyl Peroxide, kill the bacteria and fungus and promote healing. Additionally, you’ll need to apply an anti-bacterial ointment to the sores and stable your horse in a clean, dry stall until the situation resolves.

“Dermatophilosis,” or rain rot (rain scald), occurs in overcast weather with heavy rainfall when Dermatophilus c. invades a skin abrasion or wound. Because the condition is bacterial, it can be spread from horse to horse by tack, grooming supplies, clippers, and blankets.

If your horse has rain rot, you’ll see clumps of matted hair on his back and rump. You’ll be able to feel scabs underneath the matted hair and the upper layer of skin, and scabs tends to peel away fairly easily.

Treatment of this illness includes gently removing the scabs and matted hair and washing the affected areas with Chlorhexidine shampoo. You’ll want to spray a topical betadine solution onto the patchy, exposed skin, and, in severe cases, give your horse a dose of systemic antibiotics.

Foot Problems

 That nasty mud is the cause for two kinds of hoof problems common in the winter – thrush and hoof abscesses.

“Thrush” is a bacterial infection characterized by a sharp, bad odor, and black, oozing pus-like material coming from the center of your horse’s frog. You’ll need to clean the hooves daily and squirt on a topical, anti-bacterial medication such as Betadine or Kopertox. This is another condition where a clean, dry stall floor is needed until the thrush is cleared.

You’ll first notice a hoof abscess – or incapsulated infection – when your horse shows up acutely lame, often not wanting to put any weight on the affected foot. Caused by bacteria in muddy conditions that manage to work their way into a hoof or sole crack, a horse with an abscess will show pain when hoof testers are applied to the sole of the foot. He typically has a very strong pulse in the pastern vein and you may notice some inflammation or swelling along the coronary band and heel bulbs. Often, the infection will break through the skin around the coronary band and drain.

Your veterinarian will need to remove the shoe to open the abscess pocket and allow the infection to drain if it hasn’t done it on its own. You’ll want to soak the affected foot in an Epsom salt solution and apply an ichthamol poultice to the bottom of the hoof to draw out the bacteria. Antibiotics are not usually prescribed for a hoof abscess. The shoe can be replaced when the situation is resolved.


Respiratory Problems 

Equine respiratory problems, including “heaves,” “bronchitis,” and “upper respiratory infections,” are often prevalent during the winter months when horses spend more time in dusty barns and stalls. Without proper ventilation or access to outside air, your horse’s lungs can be affected by the higher levels of ammonia in urine, plus the mold and hay dust common in just about every barn.

Signs of respiratory illness include an increased rate of breathing, coughing, labored breathing, exercise intolerance, and a fever. Veterinary treatment will vary according to the diagnosed illness and may include systemic antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, or bronchodilators to increase lung function. Always call your vet if your horse shows any signs of respiratory distress.

Digestive Tract Problems 

During cold weather months, colic can be a problem when horses stop drinking as much water as they do during warmer weather. The lack of hydration causes the grain and hay your horse normally eats to become impacted in his intestines and unable to pass from his digestive tract. A horse with this condition typically presents with a painful – often swollen – belly. He may want to roll to alleviate his pain and you may notice him biting or kicking at his gut. Colic is a veterinary emergency and you’ll want to keep your horse up and walking until your vet is able to see him.

Typical veterinary treatment of colic revolves around rehydrating your horse with intravenous fluids, injecting pain medication, and sending mineral oil into the gut via a nasogastric tube. The oil works to lubricate the impaction and send it on its way out of the body. Severe cases of colic require surgical intervention.

Winter weight loss is a common condition of horses when the grass they normally graze on dies off in the colder months. The equine body adjusts to the cooler temperature by revving up its metabolism to keep warm from the inside out, thus using up more calories than the animal gets from his normal food ration.

If you notice your horse losing weight during the winter, try increasing his hay ration or allowing him free-choice hay. The extra forage not only ups his caloric intake, it gives him the extra fiber he needs to prevent colic. Depending on your horse’s metabolism and predisposition to laminitis, you may also want to increase his grain or complete feed as needed.

The best way to prevent any health problems for your horse is to keep him as clean and dry as possible during the wet months. Groom him daily to remove any mud from his legs and hooves and allow him to dry thoroughly before putting him in his stall. Keep him hydrated by warming his water and feeding a warm, wet bran mash on occasion. Watch for signs of illness or injury and call your vet immediately if you suspect your horse has one of these conditions.

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