Rethinking Hibiscrub


Do you have a horse first aid kit?

Some owners have a very extensive kit containing everything you could ever need for your horse, whilst other will have a few products scattered around the yard. Whatever the state of your horse first aid kit the chances are your kit will contain a bottle of Hibiscrub. It has been routinely used to clean wounds for many years, however several leading vets are now suggesting that Hibiscrub is not the best product for cleaning wounds.

On the Horse First Aid Courses that I run together with qualified vets, we changed the recommendation that we make regarding products to clean wounds with back in early 2018. Here are the key reasons why Hibiscrub isn’t the best product to clean most wounds with…

Hibiscrub is too strong

Chlorhexidine, to give hibiscrub its correct name, is a powerful antimicrobial designed for surgeons to prepare themselves and their patients for surgery. Hibiscrub literally kills everything in its path, which is ideal for surgery but not at all necessary for a regular wound. Hibiscrub will kill the good cells as well as the dirt and bacteria that you are trying to clean out. As a result, hibiscrub doesn’t promote the best healing environment and research shows that cleaning a wound daily with Hibiscrub can actually delay the healing process.

Most owners don’t use it correctly

Hibiscrub should be very very diluted, at least a 1:20 dilution but most owners use a solution which is too concentrated. Undiluted Hibiscrub is a bright pink colour, but when added to water in the correct concentration it should barely change the colour of the water. Unfortunately, many owners use hibiscrub without diluting it sufficiently, and quite often the colour of the water looks more like blackcurrant squash.

Sadly, some owners use Hibiscrub ‘neat’ thinking that this is most effective. Hibiscrub applied undiluted directly to the skin can be a serious irritant, and may cause more damage than the original cut the owner was trying to treat in the first place.

As well as the need to dilute Hibiscrub well it should also be rinsed off, something that owners are often unaware of. If not rinsed off it can irritate the skin, and some vets report ‘hibiscrub mud fever’ where horses develop scabs on their lower legs, appearing similarly to mud fever, as a result of having their legs washed regularly in Hibiscrub.

Hibiscrub also works on contact time, rather than ‘scrubbability’. It should be left on for a maximum of two minutes, and then rinsed off. This is much better for your horse than aggressively scrubbing away at the wound.

So what should you use to clean wounds instead?

It is essential to clean wounds to be able to assess the extent and depth of a wound, to remove dirt and debris and to dress the wound. After all, horses spend much of their time in muddy fields and also love lying in their own poo, so wounds can inevitably become dirty.

You might have heard your vet say that ‘the solution to pollution is dilution’, this is a popular expression with vets (I think they learn this in the first week at vet school!), but it is a great principal for horse owners to remember when it comes to wounds.

Lavaging or irrigating a wound with water, or preferably saline solution, is the best way to clean the wound. This will cause less damage to the tissue structure than scrubbing away with an antimicrobial product such as Hibiscrub.

You can use a hose for a muddy cut straight from the field if it is safe to do so, and your horse will tolerate this, or a 50ml syringe is handy to flush a wound clean with.

Saline solution is the best product to clean most wounds with because it won’t harm the tissue, or slow down healing. Hibiscrub should be left for heavily contaminated wounds, or to be used on the advice of your vet. You can use a pre-prepared saline solution, or make up your own using a teaspoon of salt in a pint of cooled boiled water. 

So if you have some Hibiscrub in your horse first aid kit why not move it to the back of the cupboard, and keep saline solution for the majority of cuts and small wounds that your horse picks up. 

It is also important to remember that the size of a wound doesn’t necessarily indicate the severity or need to seek veterinary assistance. A large wound can look worse due to the size, but the location of the wound must also be considered, as well as, the thickness and if any other structures are involved or visible. A wound (however small) over a joint or tendon should never be dismissed, and any cut which is the full thickness of the skin, or where muscle, tendon or bone can be seen should always been seen by a vet.

If you are in any doubt about any cut or injury on your horse you must seek guidance from your vet.