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Fungal Skin Infections: what they are and how to treat them

by Michelle Holtmeyer
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Fungal conditions in the horse are distressing and sometimes hard to eradicate. Horses with weakened immune systems are more likely to suffer from fungal skin conditions, the best-known of which is ringworm, also known as fungal dermatitis or tinea. Ringworm is nothing to do with worms! It’s so-called because of the nasty ring-shaped callouses the fungal spores produce on the horse’s skin.

So in order to protect your horse from the fungal threat, focus on keeping his or her immune system functioning well. Sickness, vitamin deficiency, the wrong nutrition and even washing your horse too much can all contribute to weakening the immune system. Other well-known contributory factors are stress, damp dirty stables and poor hygiene. Long periods of wet weather without the healthy UV of the sun are when problems can start, so cases increase in winter.

Time to don the gloves and start scrubbing then? Certainly, stables always benefit from regular cleaning and disinfecting. However, washing your horse too often and with the wrong shampoo can also result in fungal conditions. The horse produces natural oils to keep its skin and coat healthy and over-washing can disrupt them.

Symptoms – what to look for

Early treatment is key to stopping fungal infections in their tracks, so here are some classic signs. Watch for scaly, rough or even bald patches on the horse’s skin. They may be crusty and bloody as well. Sometimes the skin looks raised, ridged or swollen. As a fungal infection develops, it can often spread to cover large areas of the horse’s body with lesions.

Your horse will often let you know there’s something wrong through its behaviour. They may bite themselves, or rub or scratch against doors, fenceposts or you! They will be stressed and restless. The parts most readily affected are the head, neck, saddle and girth areas.

Treatment of ringworm in the horse

There are several different ways to treat ringworm and other fungal infections. Don’t expect instant results though, because once established, these conditions can take a while to shift.

Several anti-fungal washes are available. If using one of these, you need to ensure that the entire body is washed. These are usually available in packs to be added to water. It may take more than one treatment – the standard is every three days at the start. In the case of a bad fungal infection, it’s best to refer to the vet regularly

There are also vaccines available which can help not only to prevent infection but also to treat horses that are already infected. These are usually administered in a programme of two-week intervals at the start, then via annual or nine-monthly booster doses. It’s important to ensure your horse is not stressed before and after it has received its treatment.

What about alternative treatment options?

If you’re looking for a natural alternative to fungicides, try a wash made up of 100ml of cider vinegar in 1 litre of water. This can assist in balancing the pH of the horse’s skin. Never apply cider vinegar neat though!

Tea tree oil is another natural remedy that’s proven to fight infections of all kinds. A ratio of 10ml of tea tree oil to 1 litre of water is good. Again, make sure all affected parts are washed.

You can help your horse by supporting it internally, too. Ensuring your horse has the right balance of vitamins and minerals is important. If your horse is lacking in any essentials, provide a high-quality supplement that will help to maintain a healthy immune system.

Some herbs are also believed to be especially good for the health of the skin. These include nettle, horsetail, burdock roots and rose hips.

Are fungal infection contagious?

Quite simply, yes: very contagious! Fungal infections can spread very quickly through the herd. Don’t share brushes, rugs or tack as spores can be passed on in this way. Take precautions yourself as well, such as wearing disposable gloves, since humans can get ringworm too.

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