I assume that people wouldn’t voluntarily and regularly walk around barefoot on dog feces (or feces of any type), yet it’s perplexing that some people regularly clean out horse stalls in bare feet (I’ve seen it done!). While horse manure may not be as inherently gross as dog poop, it’s still feces, and like all feces contains a huge population of various bacteria, some of which can be harmful. The risks of barefoot mucking may also extend to bare feet inside boots, although I don’t think sock-averse people need to panic.

An article in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases (Friederichs et al) describes infectious arthritis of the shoulder of a horse owner that was caused by Streptococcus zooepidemicus, a bacterium commonly found in horses but rarely associated with disease in people. The person didn’t have a wound in the shoulder area or any other obvious route for the bacterium to get to the shoulder joint. They searched for a source of the infection and all they found was a chronic lesion on the person’s foot. This, combined with the patient’s history of taking care of his horses in "bare feet in boots", led them to implicate the foot as the source of infection.

The idea, I guess, is that socks would be a barrier to help prevent contamination of the foot wound. That makes sense to a degree – the person could contaminate his foot with S. zooepidemicus from his hands (probably acquired from touching the horse’s nose) while removing the boots, or manure could work its way into boots and directly contaminate the wound. Both are possible, but we have to be a little cautious in interpreting these conclusions. However, this is a bacterium that is associated with horses and the foot lesion is certainly a possible route of entry.

Overall, this should be considered an interesting report of a very rare problem, not something that indicates a major concern. However, there are a few good points to take away from this story:

  • If you have a wound or chronic lesion of any sort, make sure you take measures to reduce the risk of bacterial contamination when working around horses. This might be as simple as making sure it’s covered by clothing, or something more involved like using an impermeable bandage.
  • Hands are probably the major source of infection transmission, and good hand hygiene is important after horse or stall contact, particularly if you have an underlying disease.