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When it comes to monitoring your horse or pony's health, the skin plays a bigger role than you may think. Not only is it the largest organ of the horse's body but it is also the only one visible to the owner's eye, and its condition is a good indicator of the overall well-being of the animal. Far more than just a protective sheath for the body, the skin has multiple roles: it prevents dehydration; it allows for the excretion of unwanted substances; it regulates body temperature through sweat and the raising of hair shafts; it carries sensory nerves essential for the recognition of heat, cold and pain; it synthesises vitamin D from sunlight; and it plays an important part in social relations with other horses. With such a variety of tasks to perform, the skin must be healthy and functional for the horse to be well and happy in himself, and so it is important to identify any problems from the outset. Whilst symptoms such as loss of hair, scales, itching, dullness, and decreased elasticity can also point to ailments that stem from within (such as dehydration, worm burden and liver disease), there are a number of conditions that are localised to the skin itself. As some of these are infectious in origin and can be transmitted through contact, it is vital to recognise symptoms early on. The following is a list (by no means exhaustive) of the most common skin conditions encountered by the average horse owner.
Caused by an infecting fungus that can survive for up to ten years within the damp crevices found in places such as stables, fences and horse transporters, ringworm is a common and highly contagious disease that demands efficient management. It is transmitted through direct contact with infected horses, buildings, grooming kit, tack, rugs, fencing, riders' boots, mange mites, and flying insects. Importantly, humans and other animals can also be infected. The disease first appears in the form of raised hair papules. After 7 to 10 days, the hair will fall out to reveal scaly, grey lesions that may crust, or in some cases become infected and itchy. Whilst only a couple of lesions may affect the horse to begin with, these will quickly spread if left untreated. As symptoms can take up to a fortnight to appear, it is not unusual for ringworm to affect multiple horses on the same yard - the disease will have been transmitted unknowingly, often beginning with a new arrival. If ringworm is suspected, a vet should be notified straight away and the horse immediately isolated. Once the scabs have been gently removed, topical applications will be administered to the lesions, and oral medication may also be necessary. Infected animals should be assigned their own equipment and stable, and must always be attended to last so as not to transmit the disease to others in the same person's care. The handler's clothes and hands should be thoroughly disinfected on a regular basis, and the horse's stable, rugs, tack and other kit given the same treatment. As with most diseases, prevention is better than cure. Ideally, any new arrivals to a yard should be isolated for 21 days, and monitored closely for signs of illness. During this time their equipment and tack should be kept separately. Any horse that has recently travelled outside of the yard should be checked every day for abnormalities, and all equine residents of busy yards, whether permanent or temporary, should always have their own grooming kit, tack, rugs and buckets.
Warts are small, grey, cauliflower-shaped outgrowths that are usually found around the eyes, nose and muzzle, and are caused by a viral infection. Nearly always found in horses under eighteen months old, the virus is usually passed from a mare to her foal through suckling, but can also be transferred through recently contaminated grazing, woodwork or materials. Affected horses should be isolated from other youngsters. The disease will regress of its own accord within four months.
Unlike warts, sarcoids most commonly affect adult horses, do not regress with age, and are not thought to be contagious. Viral in origin, these skin tumours take six distinct forms, namely: occult, verrucose, nodular, fibroblastic, mixed, and malevolent. They are usually found on the head or limbs but can occur on the neck, sheath, groin and other areas according to their type. As it is difficult for the average horse owner to differentiate between the various types, it is advisable to consult a vet over suspected cases, as sarcoids range in terms of severity. Treatments such as radiation therapy have proved relatively successful, and removal is a further option to consider, but such action may not be necessary unless tack-bearing areas are affected - and even then, regrowth cannot be ruled out.
Caused by a bacterium that invades the skin of wet horses, rain scald is an unsightly infection that is found on the quarters, back and dorsal neck. The condition is recognisable by clumps of matted hair that can be pulled out in tufts to reveal grey-green pus at bottom of the shafts, creating a 'paint-brush' effect. Alopecia follows, and the areas affected can be large. Horses that are kept out at grass tend to be most susceptible as their coats do not get chance to dry out properly during prolonged periods of rain. Leaking rugs that trap moisture can also be a cause, as can the riding or grooming of animals that are damp. Invariably, however, rain scald points to poor levels of care and management. A vet should always be called out to examine suspected cases as a course of antibiotics may be necessary. In the meantime, affected horses should be brought in and gently dried off with a heat lamp or hair dryer on a low-heat setting.
Mud fever is the same condition as rain scald but affects the lower limbs rather than the body. It is a common ailment as the skin in this area is more prone to chapping and cuts, thus allowing bacterial invasion. Infected heels and limbs should be washed with an antiseptic shampoo in order to remove the crusts, after which the legs must be dried thoroughly. Hair will need to be clipped away from the area to expose the lesions, which should then be treated with an antibiotic ointment. Depending on the severity of the condition, limbs may become swollen and lameness may occur. In such instances a vet must be called, and it is likely that a course of antibiotics will be prescribed. Horses affected badly should be stabled until the mud fever has cleared. Regular inspection of your horse's legs will help to catch mud fever before it worsens, and it is essential to dry limbs and heels thoroughly whenever they have been washed. As a further preventative measure, barrier creams can be applied before turnout.
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