Rain Scald In Horses: A Concerning Equine Skin Condition?

Beautiful horse grazing in summer

During seasons of heavy rainfall, it’s essential for anyone who owns horses to think about how the rain and inclement weather might impact their animals.  Since rain scald (also known as rain rot) in horses goes hand in hand with the rainy season, it is a legitimate concern for horse owners. As one of the more contagious horse skin conditions, the dermatological condition can also develop into a serious issue if not taken care of promptly. This article will discuss not only how to identify this troublesome equine skin ailment, but how to prevent and treat it.

What Causes Rain Rot In Horses?

Also referred to as rain scald or dermatophilosis, rain rot in horses is a very common skin infection caused by Dermatophilus congolensis, a bacteria that lives on the skin. While this bacteria is primarily dormant on the skin’s surface, it can cause harmful inflammatory infections under wet conditions, resulting in lesions on your horse’s skin and coat. These lesions eventually form into hair matted scabs, which deeply affect the back area and rump of the horse, but sometimes reaches the lower limbs as well. Because it thrives in damp environments, rain scald is most often observed during the winter months. Worse yet, if the horse’s skin is constantly wet and cracked, it can also become infected with other secondary bacteria, such as staphylococcus.

Identifying Rain Scald: Knowing What To Look For

Much as the name itself indicates, rain scald in horses often appears as though the skin has been scalded by hot water droplets. The affected areas will discharge a sticky secretion, matting the hair together, resulting in crusty scabs. Other signs of dermatitis – particularly over the saddle area and loins – may also appear.

In milder cases, one may observe just a few flat scaly patches that contain matted hair on the horse’s coat. When the scabs are removed from the hair, the skin will appear raw and somewhat moist. However, in severe cases, the coat along the horse’s rump and back will feel hard to the touch, consisting of multiple scabs in a concentrated area. Upon removal, the scabs will typically reveal raw, bare skin. Occasionally, rain scald may also affect the face.

In the event that the infection spreads to the lower limbs of the horse, it is known as mud fever, resulting in very similar scabby crusting and lesions of the skin. In either scenario, this is an uncomfortable and painful skin infection for horses and can be easily prevented with proper care, adequate shelter, and appropriate grooming hygiene.

For those who are unfamiliar with the appearance of rain scald, it’s easy to confuse it with different equine skin conditions, such as sweet itch in horses, ringworm and other parasitic dermatological infections. In any case, it’s important to contact a vet in order to diagnose what type of skin infection the horse is suffering from, as well as determine a course of treatment.

Rain Scald Prevention: How To Protect Your Horse

One of the most effective ways to protect your horse from experiencing the pain and discomfort of rain scald is prevention. Horses require adequate shelter for their coats to completely dry out, since their hair holds onto moisture. Repeated and long-term exposure to the elements without giving the horse’s coat a chance to dry off can negatively affect the delicate skin underneath, making it prone to infection. During rainy seasons, experts recommend a field shelter if possible.  

Since the naturally occurring bacteria on his skin biome thrives in damp conditions, it’s imperative to keep horses sheltered, stabled, and/or covered with a waterproof rug during inclement weather (including snow). Protecting him from prolonged periods outdoors in damp weather can help prevent his skin from becoming cracked and dry. By protecting his skin and coat from staying wet 24/7, it can help to avoid nasty skin infections like rain rot.

Below, some other preventative measures owners can take to guard against rain rot:

  • Regularly inspect horses each day to ensure there are no abrasions or injuries to the skin.
  • For horses that have been standing in heavy precipitation for more than two days, be sure to check him thoroughly for any signs of rain rot, and remove mud and debris from his legs.
  • During the winter months, remove the horse’s blankets every couple of days for a complete inspection of his body, including his skin and coat’s condition.
  • Make sure the horse isn’t sweating under his blanket; if he feels damp to the touch, remove it so his skin can breathe and dry out.
  • Be certain to practice good hygiene and grooming at all times – every few days, horses should receive a brushing and curry comb over their entire bodies at the very minimum; this includes pasture-boarded and retired horses. Keeping their coat and skin clean and free from dirt and debris helps prevent matting and infection from setting in.
  • Never blanket a horse immediately following a workout, a bath, or exposure to the elements – always ensure horses are completely dry before covering them with sheets or blankets to avoid rain scald. Scraping off the leftover water after bathing will speed up the drying process.
  • For horses who don’t get groomed frequently or spend most of their time outside, providing a durable roofed structure or run-in shed can help to protect them from inclement weather.
  • Consider insect repellent to protect horses’ skin – it can help reduce the urge to scratch, while lessening the chance of bites and other skin abrasions that can potentially lead to infection-causing bacteria settling in. Speak with your vet for insect repellent recommendations that are safe for horses as well as other animals on the farm.  

Treating Rain Rot In Horses: A Helpful Guide

Although rain rot is treatable, knowing what type of care your horse requires is essential for a full recovery. Therefore, it’s crucial to reach out to a trusted vet to provide a professional diagnosis. Once it’s been determined that the horse’s skin condition is rain scald, your vet will recommend an appropriate course of treatment.

girl riding a horse

It must be stressed that rain scald in horses is highly contagious, so gloves must be worn at all times when handling him. In fact, experts warn that the bacteria can infect handlers through small cuts or abrasions in the skin, so wearing latex gloves is not only hygienic, but imperative for the owner’s safety. Additionally, since rain scald is not only contagious to humans but also to other animals, all gear that comes in contact with an affected horse – including blankets, brushes, buckets, tack, and other equipment – must be disinfected and should never be shared with other horses.

What to expect during treatment

Typically, treatment of rain scalding requires cleaning the affected areas with an antiseptic scrub or other topical preparation, such as an ointment, spray, or powder as directed by your veterinarian. Additionally, speak with your vet about pain management therapy, including natural horse supplements to ease his discomfort. In more severe cases, horses may need antibiotics or penicillin.

Here are some general care guidelines to follow during treatment:

  • Provide horses with protection from moisture so that his coat can completely dry out
  • Ensure stalls are clean and dry at all times
  • Keep the affected area dry and exposed to air
  • Avoid covering affected areas with any tack or equipment, since friction may reopen the wound or expose it to debris/dirt
  • Monitor lesions and abrasions closely and report updates to the vet (particularly if healing is slow or conditions worsen)
  • Sunlight exposure helps to promote healing
  • Avoid muddy/wet fields
  • Prevent mud from splashing onto the skin when possible
  • Keep affected horses stabled in a dry box
  • Remove damp bedding regularly to promote healing
  • Clean grooming kits frequently to avoid cross-contamination
  • Quarantine infected horses away from the other animals on the property

In the instance that the horse’s scabbing is minimal and he is suffering primarily from dry/flaky skin, your veterinarian might recommend removing the scabs via a thorough grooming, followed by an antimicrobial bath. If this recommendation is made, it may be the only treatment required to aid in the horse’s recovery. However, for more advanced cases of rain rot, your vet will provide you with specific instructions, including grooming procedures, topical medications, and in severe cases, prescription medications.

If you believe your horse has rain scald, time is of the essence. By identifying rain rot early on and administering a course of treatment per your vet’s instructions, you can help to avoid not only pain and hair loss, but secondary infections which can potentially impact your horse’s long-term health. Along with keeping a watchful eye and practicing preventative measures, regular grooming and proper equine nutrition can aid in your horse’s overall condition, including the health of his skin and coat.

 Sources Cited:

1)  “Rain Rot in Horses.” PennState Extension (extension.psu.edu), October 30, 2020, https://extension.psu.edu/rain-rot-in-horses. Accessed June 8, 2021.

2)      “Struggling with rain scald? Find out how to beat it…” Horse&Hound (horseandhound.co.uk), February 6 2018, https://www.horseandhound.co.uk/horse-care/vet-advice/rain-scald-in-horses-35320. Accessed June 8, 2021.

3)  Carson, Deirdre M., BVSc, MRCVS; Ricketts, Sidney W., LVO, BSc, BVSc, DESM, DipECEIM, FRCPath, FRCVS. “Rain Scald in Horses.” VCA (vcahospitals.com), Copyright 2010, https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/rain-scald-in-horses. Accessed June 8, 2021.

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