Effective Treatments For Equine Sweet Itch

Published: 05th July 2011
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Sweet Itch is a constant problem for many horse owners.

Also know by various other names in different countries, Sweet Itch is a condition that results from an increased sensitivity and bodily reaction to insect bites.

Hypersensitivity can result from the bites of midges, horse flies, stable flies and black flies. Wasp and bee stings, although more rare, have also been recorded as being responsible for a heightened skin sensitivity. Of these, the saliva from midge bites is the most prominent cause of the unwanted horse skin reactions that are generically known as Sweet Itch.

Unfortunately, in an affected horse, the autoimmune system overreacts to the saliva left behind after a midge bite and this often causes an intolerably itch. It will be a natural reaction that the horse will seek to rub themselves to relieve the itch. Unfortunately, rubbing often increases sensitivity and the feeling of itchiness. Hard objects, often chosen by the horse to rub against, will mean that the likelihood of skin damaged is probable. And, damaged skin is prone to secondary infections.

Typically, Sweet Itch will culminate in skin thickening, ulceration, skin lesions, scuffed, broken hairs and bald patches.

As every horse owner knows, there are various preventative measures and treatments that can be used to try and alleviate the worst symptoms of Sweet Itch.

The various preventative measures all aim to achieve the same goal, namely, inhibiting the insect to settle on the animal thereby avoiding the possibility of insect bites.

Rugs and face masks are used to form a physical barrier across the horse's skin. Unfortunately these are only completely effective if all areas of the body is covered, including the head, ears and legs. Any area of your horse left uncovered will be susceptible to insect bites.

Keeping the horse in a stable when the offending insects are most prevalent is another measure that gives some relief. Covering stable openings with mosquito quality netting will greatly aid this measure of preventing the midges getting to the horses. As effective as this approach may be, it is unlikely to be a practical solution. Most owners would not want their horse confined to stables for extended periods, even if it was convenient to do so.

As a halfway measure, as midges are most active at dawn and dusk, horses may be stabled from early evening through to mid-morning.

Weather conditions are also a factor in midge numbers and activity. The midge needs freestanding water in which to breed, so a prolonged dry spell can drastically reduce midge numbers. In contrast warm, wet weather can precipitate a sharp increase in midge numbers and activity.

Using an insect repellent may also give some protection. This is not a risk free solution though. There are a number of common ingredients, widely used in these products, that can be responsible undesirable side effects.

As an example, products based on benzyl benzoate require the application to be worked into the skin. Without this, their effectiveness may be reduced. One unwanted side effect of benzyl benzoate is that it can act as a skin irritant. As it is most effective when it is worked deep into the skin, any area of existing hair loss or open wounds will react extremely negatively to its application.

Treatments based on formulations including glucocorticoids are generally regarded as providing good protection against insect. However, care should be observed when using these products. Pregnant mares and horses prone to laminitis are not suited to these formulations.

In all case, repellents and insecticides are best employed before any insect bites occur.

Once hypersensitivity has been induced and the symptoms of Sweet Itch are displayed, the owner needs to think seriously of measures to manage those symptoms. Just as is the case with human skin care, equine skin care can respond well to the appropriate treatment.

Because the intense itchiness that accompanies the hypersensitivity, a horse suffering from Sweet Itch will incessantly rub against trees, fences and other hard objects. Of course, although this action may provide temporary relief to the horse, it will not address the on-going itchiness. Rubbing is therefore repeated at regular intervals and this can lead to skin and mane damage. The possibility of weeping wounds and lesions will inevitably result and that, in turn, can raise the problem of contracting bacterial infections. For these reasons, once the symptoms are evident, it is important to apply an antipruritic product to lessen the animal's feeling of itchiness.

Antihistamines and natural products such as aloe vera can provide relief. However, some antihistamines such as hydroxyzine and corticosteroids can induce undesirable side-effects and so their use should be closely monitored.

Some horse owners have reported that using natural ingredients, such as a sulfur-based shampoo, seems to produce a reduction in their horse's rubbing. However, no firm scientific evidence exists as to efficacy of such preparations.

Whatever approach you take to ameliorate Sweet Itch, you are unfortunately unlikely to find a 100% effective cure. Having said that, and not underestimating all the contributing problems and difficulties, having a firm knowledge of the underlying causes and symptoms of Sweet Itch gives the owner an excellent advantage in combating it. Sweet Itch can certainly be effectively managed if not avoided altogether.


Peter Friswell has worked in the skincare industry for more than 20 years. Peter is the owner of an informative skin care website. Now, in direct response to requests, Peter has created a specially formulated product for equine skin care. Horse Shield is specifically designed to provide relief from the symptoms of Sweet Itch.

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