Signs and treatment of sweet itch in horses

Signs and treatment of sweet itch in horses

This is one of the most common allergic reactions that affects horses in the UK. Below you can learn how to prevent or/and manage it.

What is sweet itch?

Sweet itch is an allergic reaction to bites from mosquitos and flies and is most commonly seen in native breeds of horses, however it can affect almost any breed of horse. The average effected is around 5% of horses.

Mosquitos, midges and flies (which cause the hypersensitivity) can change depending on the country you are in. In the UK, the main culprits are black flies and midges.

Because the insect bites are very itchy for your horse, the term ‘sweet itch’ literally describes the feeling the horse gets when it itches the bites. The severity levels differ from horse to horse. One could occasionally scratch their tail, or in more severe cases they could itch until self-trauma is caused.

The symptoms of sweet itch

Symptoms will change as every horse is different. Some may not be affected by any bites whereas others will be affected by just one or two bites.

  • Horses will often scratch their neck, mane or tail. Horses will find any way to get rid of the sensation meaning they may end up rubbing and biting their skin wherever they can reach.
  • The skin will look different when and where they have itched, it may appear scaly or bumpy. Sometimes it can be hot to touch and the hair where the horse has itched is rough or misplaced.
  • Scratching may cause hair loss, bleeding, or thickening of the skin.
  • Skin may look dull or scruffy, this is also another thing to look out for.
  • Some horses can become restless and in very worst cases may even start to lose weight as a result.

Steps to prevent sweet itch?

  • Fly-rugs are becoming more and more advanced and sophisticated, with a wide range of different types and prices to suit your horse and your budget. If your horse is affected badly then they will most likely need to wear a fly-rug 24/7, so investing in a good fitting, comfortable, hard wearing and full coverage is worth it. Some fly-rugs will cover just the body, neck, tail and under the belly, whilst some will cover your horse from top to bottom to ensure the pesky flies can’t get in.
  • Fly spray/repellent is also a good idea. There are many different types, brands and applications. Repellent bands and tags are also an option, these are very helpful in controlling mosquitos and midges. Products with pyrethroid or permethrin-based ingredients work best.
  • There are screens you can buy for stable doors and windows that help to keep the flies out. They are called ultrafine midge screens.
  • Female flies lay their eggs on soft mud, and so wherever possible you should keep your horse away from still/standing water. This may mean cornering some of the field off so that they can’t come in to contact with it.

How to manage sweet itch

There is no actual cure for sweet itch but there are always ways to manage it.

You can get steroids that offer relief for your horse; however, this is a short to medium term basis. Long term steroids increase the risk of laminitis, and so must only be used if prescribed by your vet.

Antihistamines can relieve the symptoms; however, your horse will need them in large quantities making it quite costly and sometimes an ineffective option. Always ask the vet if this is a good route to take.

You can get anti-itch shampoos that will help your horse and will reduce the itchiness. Try and purchase ones that contain oatmeal, antihistamines or local anaesthetics. Bathing with ice or cold water can cool the affected areas and relieve symptoms.

There is an organisation called ‘Itchy Horse’ which sell’s products that might be helpful for your horse.

British Pet Insurance Services offers a range of horse and pony cover levels, with up to £5,000 vet fees and a range of optional extras. Select the level of cover to suit your needs.

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