What is Sweet Itch?
Sweet itch is the most common allergic skin reaction in UK horses, and it tends to rear its ugly head at this time of year thanks to the warmer weather. It affects as many as five per cent of our horses and is caused by an allergic reaction to insect bites, particularly the black fly and the midge.
Almost all breeds of horses and ponies are susceptible to sweet itch, regardless of type, age, or breed. However, some native breeds may be more prone to it.
How to Spot Sweet Itch
Because there are so many different allergens that can cause similar symptoms, it can be difficult to determine whether your horse or pony genuinely has sweet itch. It is a good idea to groom your horse regularly so you can examine their skin and keep an eye out for scratching at the same time. Catching sweet itch early gives you a better chance of managing it effectively.
The Signs of Sweet Itch
- Scratching and rubbing along the mane, tail, and along the dorsal midline.
- Hair loss around the mane and tail.
- The skin's condition may also appear patchy, scurfy, or dull.
- Open sores which may also bleed or weep and become inflamed or hot to the touch.
- Some horses may experience restlessness and irritability.
- In the worst cases your horse may even start to lose weight.
It's important to remember that each horse will show different symptoms of sweet itch, and some horses may show more severe symptoms than others. If you think your horse may have sweet itch it is a good idea to speak to your vet for an accurate diagnosis and treatment advice.
How to Treat Sweet Itch in Horses
Unfortunately, there is no cure for sweet itch so prevention is the best approach. However, there are some ways to help relieve the symptoms and make your horse feel more comfortable.
- Antihistamines: Your vet may suggest oral antihistamines, which may reduce itching in some horses. However, these require high dosages to be effective, making it an expensive treatment option.
- Steroids: In severe cases, your vet may prescribe steroids to reduce any inflammation and soothe itching. However, these shouldn’t be used long term as they can have a number of side effects including an increased risk of laminitis.
- Topical treatments: Applying insect repellents or soothing creams to affected areas can give your horse some relief. Products containing ingredients like pyrethrin, permethrin, or citronella can be effective against biting insects.
- Nutritional supplements designed to support the natural immune response can also help your horse cope with allergic reactions.
Preventing Sweet Itch
Thankfully there are a few things you can do to reduce your horse’s chances of getting sweet itch.
- Midges are usually most active around the early morning and late evening. Using fly masks, sheets and leg wraps at these times to reduce the chances of your horse getting bitten.
- Wet conditions make the perfect breeding ground so keeping paddocks clean, dry, and well-managed is crucial to preventing them. Quickly remove any manure piles that can also draw insects.
- Regular grooming and bathing can lower the risk of skin irritation by removing insects, debris, and allergens from your horse's coat.
- Installing fans also helps to keep midge’s away from the stable area.
- Allergen barrier sprays, oils or anti itch shampoos can help to the horse's coat can create a protective layer against allergens and biting insects.
What to Feed a Horse with Sweet Itch
There is no specific diet to follow for horses with sweet itch, but making nutritional changes and adding supplements may help your horse's immune system function better. Giving your horse a balanced diet will make sure they are getting a variety of vitamins and minerals.
Immune support supplements containing anti-inflammatories and antioxidants can help your horse to deal with allergens and irritants. Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids have also been shown to effectively reduce itching so bear this in mind when looking at feeds and supplements.
Ultimately, the best way to protect your horse from sweet itch is to prevent them being bitten in the first place. However, it’s not always possible to keep flies and midges away completely. If you do notice any signs of itching or irritation, speak to your vet straightaway.