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!
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.
- You will also then have more itching, more 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.
This horse’s mane is almost gone due to rubbing. She’s about a few days away from having open sores.
Sweet itch vs. Dandruff
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 in a fatty acid-based fly spray to cover all bases here.
- Also, make friends with a specialty fly sheet. There are several companies that 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.
The midges that cause sweet itch tend to avoid the legs, which is why 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.
Sores and bald patches on this horse’s face from sweet itch.
More mane hair loss, showing bare skin. A few more days of rubbing and this horse’s skin could break open. Then the scab, rub, open sore cycle starts.
- Usually, some sort of medicated shampoo and topical cream will help your horse out 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 have the option to add flax to your horse’s diet, some studies have suggested that the extra omega-3 fatty acids in flax really help his immune response and healing. Omega-3 fatty acids are known anti-inflammatory agents. Check with your veterinarian or equine nutritionist for dosages.
- Keep your affected horses tucked away in the barn during peak midge activity hours which are early morning and dusk.
- Use superfine screen 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.
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.
For helping the horse battling sweet itch, you want a fly sheet that covers as much as possible. And perhaps a fly mask, also. As an Amazon Associate and with other affiliate programs, I earn from qualifying purchases, which is no extra charge to you! I greatly appreciate your support!
This fly spray is weird but also great for certain types of flies
Cashel Crusader Horse Fly Mask with Ears and Long Nose – select size
Cashel Quiet Ride Standard Horse Fly Mask with Ears for riding
Another style of long-nose fly mask for horses