What is sweet itch in horses?

 

Sweet itch in horses is a topical skin irritation caused by insects.  Unfortunately, these insects are small, annoying, and seem to be everywhere.  But you can help your horse cope! 

 

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Sweet itch is also known by these names:

 

  • Summer equine dermatitis
  • Recurrent seasonal pruritis
  • Summer eczema
  • Insect bite hypersensitivity (IBH)
  • Queensland itch

 

  • It’s known as Queensland itch because it’s estimated that 60% of horses in this part of Australia suffer from it. Other parts of the world hover at about 5-20%.

 

The cause of sweet itch in horses

 

  • Sweet itch is a skin condition stemming from the allergic reaction to the bite of the midge, genus Culicoides, aka no-see-ums.

 

  • This tiny bug (about 4 mm long for a big one) lives on blood for part of its life cycle and will feed on your horse. Typically, the midges bite around the tail, dorsal midline, or top of your horse, and mane area.

 

  • The subsequent allergic reaction to the bite, which is an immune response in your horse, triggers a series of events that can be hard to stop.

 

  • First, there is insane itching, which leads to hair loss from all the scratching.

 

  • Your horse will also have more itching, scratching, and eventually, open and bleeding sores that can become infected. The problem with sweet itch is the itching and scratching cycle that creates those awful sores.

 

mane missing hair from sweet itch rubbing

This horse’s mane is almost gone due to rubbing. She’s about a few days away from having open sores.

 

Help prevent sweet itch and help reverse the damage.

 

  • The first is prevention. Fly spray needs to become your friend; look for permethrins and benzyl benzoate as ingredients. You may also want to add a fatty acid-based fly spray to cover all bases here.

 

  • Also, make friends with a specialty fly sheet. Several companies make a fly sheet specific for midges, which basically covers your whole horse except the head and legs. Your horse’s tailhead, belly, neck, and face are all covered with awesomely designed panels and velcro and elastic. Your horse will appear to be in a bio-hazard suit, but that’s exactly what he needs.

 

 

horse in sweet itch blanket

The midges that cause sweet itch tend to avoid the legs, so you might not see fly boots on a horse with sweet itch.

 

Get a diagnosis from your vet.

 

  • There are a lot of other things that can cause excessive itching and subsequent rubbing. Getting your veterinarian involved in finding the exact cause will enhance your chances of successful treatment.

 

  • You and your veterinarian can also discuss the use of antihistamines, which would be added to his food, or systemic steroids, although steroids carry great risks for laminitis in some horses.

 

horse wearing a fly mask that has spots of sweet itch on the cheeks

Sores and bald patches on this horse’s face from sweet itch.

 

 

mane that is infected with sweet itch

More mane hair loss, showing bare skin. This horse’s skin could break open after a few more days of rubbing. Then the scab, rub, open sore cycle starts.

 

  • Usually, medicated shampoo and topical cream will help your horse tremendously, and the fly spray combined with the fly sheet/tail and neck cover combo will help the healing. Be warned that some prescriptions, even for topical medications, will test positive at shows.

 

Other options for sweet itch relief.

 

  • You can add flax to your horse’s diet; some studies have suggested that the extra omega-3 fatty acids in flax help his immune response and healing. Omega-3 fatty acids are known anti-inflammatory agents. Check with your veterinarian or equine nutritionist for dosages.  There are many sources of Omega-3 fatty acids if flax doesn’t fit your feeding plan. 

 

  • Keep your affected horses tucked away in the barn during peak midge activity hours which are early morning and dusk.

 

  • Use superfine screens around their stalls to keep the buggers out. Don’t forget to cover the top of the stall. You can also use a fan in the stall during those times of the day.

 

  • Midges like to hang out near water, so have a barn-wide hunt for water sources that can be drained. Fix leaky sprinklers that puddle, dump standing water, and work on drainage. Move affected horses away from standing or stagnant water sources.

 

Videos and shopping

 

Sweet itch vs. Dandruff

 

The bottom line is that once the allergic reaction starts, the cycle is hard to break because as your horse itches, he creates sores. Those become itchy, so he rubs more. Endless cycle.

 

 

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Stock up here for your horse supplies! As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases, but it’s ZERO extra cents to you.  You can also visit my Amazon storefront here:  PEG storefront.

Big Hoss - Outlaw Nutrition

Omega 3's plus gut health support in a delicious cold milled flax formula. It's delicious and it will turn your horse's coat into a mirror.

SHAPLEY'S Medi-Care Med Shampoo W/Tea Tree & Lemon Grass, 32 oz
$18.95 $17.99

The best shampoo for shine and soothing.

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Fly Whisk
$39.95

For *mostly* bug free riding

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Farnam Equi-Spot, Horse Fly and Tick Control, 12-Week Supply for One Horse
$30.78

This spot-on product kills and repels ticks and helps with mosquito control.

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Cashel Quiet Ride Horse Fly Mask with Long Nose and Ears
$32.99 $29.99

This style is great for riding!

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Summit Mosquito Dunks
$9.84 ($4.92 / Count)
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Rub Protector Lycra Fly Mask – GG Equine

These fly masks are fantastic for protecting ears and eyes, and do great under halters and grazing muzzles to stop rubs and hairless patches.


Use code 15PROEQUINE for a sitewide discount on muzzles, halters, accessories, and slow feeders.

 

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