Sweet Itch is a serious, self-perpetuating medical condition affecting horses and ponies everywhere. The condition is more prevalent in warm regions and during the months of spring, summer and autumn when midges are most active. That said, Sweet Itch can strike anywhere and anytime – all it takes is one bite from an offending midge to onset severe symptoms.
Once Sweet Itch has taken hold, treating the condition and bringing effective relief is difficult. The more a horse itches, the more it rubs and bites itself, and thus the more it itches. When it comes to Sweet Itch, the best method of defence is prevention, although no measure is entirely fail-safe.
With this in mind and the spring weather welcoming a bit more sunshine, it is worth having a management plan in place to keep your horses itch-free, especially those that are sufferers.
Otherwise known as ‘Summer Itch,’ ‘Seasonal Recurrent Dermatitis’ or ‘Culicoides Hypersensitivity,’ Sweet Itch is caused by an allergic response or over-sensitivity of the immune system to the saliva of the Culicoides midge.
When bitten, proteins present in midge saliva can prompt uncomfortable immune reactions in horses. By way of comparison, equine hypersensitivity to midge saliva is like human sensitivity to pollen in hay fever sufferers, but with the added potential for infections.
As midges are most prevalent in areas near water and woodland, always make sure susceptible horses are kept well away. A windy hillside is ideal for repelling midges as they cannot fly in winds exceeding 5mph. When stabled, provide a fan that keeps air circulating and prevents midges from entering and feeding. It is advisable to keep horses stabled at dusk and dawn (6pm to 8am) when midges are most active. A fly screen above the stable door will help prevent biting insects from passing through.
If your horse is susceptible to outbreaks of Sweet Itch, investing in a quality fly rug for when he/she is out grazing during spring and summer months will help keep midges off the skin, mane and tail. A rug that extends over the dock and part-way down the tail is great for restricting midges and keeping them away from problem areas.
The head, ears and mane are also vulnerable to the attentions of biting insects and need covering as much as possible. A rug that extends along the neck, over the ears and part-way down the face will keep out midges and protect the delicate eyes from irritation.
VioVet sells several fly rugs, including the Z-itch rug with hood that not only protects against midges but absorbs powerful UV-rays and allows air in to circulate, keeping your horse at a comfortable temperature whatever the season. The rug also incorporates a mesh eye section, is fully-adjustable and is machine-washable for convenience.
Ensure the rug is worn now and in the lead up to summer, before signs of Sweet Itch appear. Putting a rug on once lesions have developed is futile as your horse will continue to itch itself, only destroying the rug in the process.
VioVet stocks a range of coat and skin supplements, including Dodson and Horrell 'Itch-Free' which contains a beneficial blend of herbs including burdock root, chamomile, nettle and garlic, known for their repelling, soothing and healing qualities. Global Herbs also offers a range of anti-itch supplements and liquid formulas for helping to manage the effects of Sweet Itch, such as their Skratch Plus and SuperSkratch products containing carefully chosen, digestible herbs.
Sweet Itch is a terrible condition for both horse and owner and there are few solutions once hypersensitivity has begun. Spring, summer and autumn months can be miserable for horse sufferers whose happiness and health is compromised by these small but mighty Culicoides midges. Prevention is key, as is minimising the harm your horse can do to itself through repetitive itching and scratching. Electric fences rather than wooden ones will help to some extent, as will where you graze your horse.
If you have any advice to share with our readers, please post your comments below. Likewise, we would love to hear your experiences of caring for a Sweet Itch sufferer so please get in touch! [email protected]
Written by Hannah Dyball