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3 Common Skin Conditions in Horses and How to Manage Them


This article is written by Pet Circle's qualified veterinarian, Dr Teagan Lever, BVSc (Hons) and last updated by Dr Maree Monaghan, BVSc (Hons)

Is your horse's coat looking more crusty and scurfy than sleek and shiny? Skin disease in horses can be caused by numerous culprits and treatment is not always straightforward. We've put together some information on a few common causes of skin and coat problems in Australian horses, to help you restore your horse's coat back to its lustrous, gleaming glory.

Remember that this advice is designed to be used as a guide only and you should always consult your veterinarian for treatment advice specific to your horse.

Queensland Itch (Insect Bite Hypersensitivity)

horse with queensland itch

Source: Good Gear Naturals, Treatment of QLD Itch

As the name suggests, Queensland itch is a common cause of itchy skin in horses in Queensland, but it also occurs right around Australia. This extremely itchy condition is caused by the horse's immune system mounting an allergic response to insect bites, chiefly Culicoides species ('midges' or 'no see ums'), but also other biting insects including stable flies and black flies.

Typically Queensland itch first appears in horses around three years of age and is generally noticed by horse owners as intense itchiness resulting in rubbing, loss of hair and thickening of the skin across the topline and centre of the tail base and neck. These poor horses are literally tearing themselves apart! Generally symptoms are seasonal as the offending insects tend to be more active during the warmer, wetter times of the year. Symptoms may last for longer periods or even year round in tropical areas.

If your horse is affected by Queensland Itch, taking steps to minimise their exposure to the biting insects causing the reaction is the first place to start. Twice daily use of a permethrin insect repellent spray such as Virbac Flyaway, particularly at the peak biting times of dawn and dusk, coupled with physical protection with rugs and hoods should help. If your horse doesn't like to be sprayed (and let's face it who does), Shield Pour On is another good option. Culicoides species like to breed in stagnant water, manure and decaying vegetation, so by removing or covering these potential breeding sites you can reduce the numbers of biting flies and midges in your horse's environment. For stabled horses, the use of strong fans can also help to deter Culicoides species as they are not strong fliers and fine mesh on windows and doorways can also help to prevent access without impinging on ventilation.

Greasy Heel (Pastern Dermatitis)

Source: Kelato. Shop QuikHeel Ointment here

An often frustrating condition to manage, greasy heel is actually an inflammation of the skin of the pastern, which can be caused by a number of conditions including bacterial or fungal infections, mite infestations and contact irritants (including some plants or topical medications). In order to effectively treat greasy heel, it is recommended to seek advice from your veterinarian to diagnose the underlying cause of the problem. Your vet may be able to examine smears or scrapings from the lesions under a microscope to reach a diagnosis, or in some cases they may need to take a skin biopsy for examination by a veterinary pathologist.

Once the underlying cause for the greasy heel is determined, your veterinarian can advise you in the best course of treatment. For mild cases of bacterial or fungal greasy heel, treatment could involve regular application of wound healing creams such as Kelato Quick Heal or Ranvet White Healer.

Ringworm (Dermatophytosis)


Ringworm is actually caused by infection with a type of fungus known as a dermatophyte, rather than a worm as the name might suggest. Most commonly seen in young, aged or debilitated horses, ringworm causes lesions that first appear as small bumps where hair loss occurs. Left untreated the hairless spots start to spread and can form dry crumbly crusts which may be itchy or sore to touch.

Ringworm spreads easily from horse to horse, as well as to other animals including dogs and people too. The infective spores can last for a long time on grooming equipment, tack and even fence railings. After a horse becomes infected with ringworm, it can take up to three weeks for lesions to appear.

Treatment of ringworm in horses centres on decontamination of equipment and the environment as well as treatment of the lesions themselves. Horses with ringworm should be quarantined from others with separate tack and grooming gear until treatment is completed. Stable surfaces, tack and grooming equipment should be regularly disinfected of spores with an effective product such as F10. This needs to be done before, during and after the horse has completed treatment to prevent reinfection. People handling horses with ringworm should wear gloves and try to minimise their exposure as much as possible.

In addition to minimising the spores in your horse's environment, topical treatment needs to be applied to the ringworm lesions themselves. Generally this involves regular washing of the affected areas with an antifungal shampoo or solution such as Malaseb or Quit Itch Antiseptic Lotion.

Remember that Ringworm can be transmitted from horses to people, so if you do notice any red or itchy lesions on your skin you should visit your GP so that they can investigate it further.

The Answer is Not Always Skin Deep

While there are a wealth of convenient and effective remedies available to treat a whole range of equine skin maladies, it pays to remember that when it comes to successfully treating skin disease in horses, a diagnosis is key. Many different skin conditions in horses can look the same on the surface with additional diagnostics required to determine the underlying cause. For best results and your horse's health and wellbeing, it is always best to consult your veterinarian for advice prior to embarking on a course of treatment.

Further Reading

Want to know more? Check out our other horse care articles:

What are the best supplements for my horse?

How to keep horse hooves healthy

Horse feeding guide

How to read the labels on horse food

Horse worming guide

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