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Home:Equine Diseases:Fistulous Withers

Equine Diseases - Fistulous Withers



Fistulous withers is a chronic inflammatory skin disease characterised by pus-filled wounds and swelling on the horse's withers. The swelling is called a fistula and the withers are the highest part of the horse's back.

Fistulous withers is the term also used to describe any severe withers skin condition.

The organism Brucella Abortus, normally found in cattle, is the main cause of fistulous withers. The organism enters the horse's body through an orifice i.e. the mouth, nose or eyes, or through broken skin.

A similar type of inflammation, known as poll evil, occurs where the top of the neck joins the head.


Some of the following symptoms will indicate the presence of fistulous withers.


  • Swelling of the withers
  • Heat in the withers
  • Holes and tracts in the withers
  • Build up of fluid at the withers
  • Drainage in the form of a yellow/clear ooze
  • Signs of fever and pain
  • Sinus infection type symptoms
  • Harness sores
  • Hair loss


The main causes of Fistulous Withers are

  • Infection - mainly through the organism Brucella Abortus found near cattle
  • Parasites
  • Trauma to the area
  • Ill-fitting saddles
  • Overwork,
  • Overloading
  • Badly balanced loads


Be sure to contact your vet immediately you come across any of the symptoms of fistulous withers.

Treatment is difficult because of poor drainage in the shoulder area. Your vet will probably want to take a blood sample to see how severe the condition is and determine the cause.

Surgery to remove the infected tissue together with antibiotics such as clofazimine or oxytetracycline, which are particularly effective against Brucella organisms, is the most treatment for fistulous withers.

Your horse should not be ridden until healing is complete. Nothing should be put on his shoulder area and you should try to exercise him without tack.

Heavy loads and uneven road surfaces should be avoided.

You must ensure that your horse's saddle is a correct fit. It should be well balanced. It should have most of its weight distributed evenly across the horses back and not tilt forwards or backwards. It should never rest on the withers or spine as these areas do not bear pressure well.

Try to ensure your horse‘s stable is a “shoulder injury free area”!