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Winter Can Be Hairy!

Pun intended! As we approach the Winter Solstice and Christmas, the weather conditions for our older animal friends pose particular problems. There are more shared problems between the species than there are differences between them, so let’s consider the common issues;

Many species adapt their coats to the weather. The length of guard hairs (the outer coat) and the fullness of the undercoat increase from the time that day length and temperature drops begin to have an effect in September. Horses and cattle shed most of their coats and gradually replace them with new and longer hairs. The new ones can be 4 – 5 times the length of the summer coats. This is especially obvious with native UK breeds, such as Shetland ponies and Highland cattle. The insulation from these coats can have a remarkable benefit, saving energy, allowing muscles to function normally in chilled conditions etc, but they can also have deleterious effects too.

The length of the coat can trap moisture, causing bacterial infections such as Mud Fever and Rain Scald in horses. The careful use of clipping and/ or the use of waterproof rugs may help to resist these painful skin conditions. A simple preventative that may help is use of salt solution (saline, at 3 tablespoons per pint) warmed and then sprinkled on the backs of likely candidates. If hairy (‘feathered’) legs are causing Mud Fever, then clipping the feathers off the horse may help to prevent further problems.

Cattle, horses and goats amongst others, may be more prone to pediculosis (lice infestations) in winter. The use of insecticidal washes and sprays will help, but like human head lice, resistance to insecticides is becoming a problem. Self-mutilation of affected animals is common. Pig lice are one of the largest lice and are clearly visible as they side wind their way around a pig’s body. Lice of one species are not usually transferrable to another, so we do not have to fear being infested. They will go into our hair, but, reassuringly, they die the moment they bite into us! We are poisonous to them!

In the winter the mud level rises, and with this comes the inexorable increase in foot infections. In horses this causes abscesses, which are the most common cause of lameness amongst them and can be excruciatingly painful. Horses can also get Thrush of the frog (part of the foot). Sheep can get Foot Rot, Scald and Strawberry Foot Rot, so called because it is so inflamed it looks like a strawberry.

Birds are wonderfully adapted to cold weather; their legs and feet being specially protected against low temperatures. But even they are more prone to foot infections in winter, such as Bumble Foot. (I love the names, so evocative of a more rural era!) I think some of the best adaptations are those adapted by dogs and cats who, unless they are a ‘toy’ breed, have luxurious winter coats which seem unharmed by cold and wet. But beware of one disease which seems to be more numerous in the Southwater area at present. Namely, Alabama Rot, which is very often deadly to dogs. It is a relatively ‘new’ disease, but is worrying many dog owners as the cause remains unclear and treatment is often unsuccessful. The overarching principal of animal care in the winter is the provision of dry, windproof areas with appropriate bedding. It need not be luxurious, but simple care can avoid much suffering in the current wet conditions.

Remember wet is worse than cold, but the combination of wet, cold and, worst of all, windy conditions can cause rapid animal deterioration.

Written by: Alastair MacVicar - equine and large animal vet


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