Sweet itch is a problem that affects horses and ponies all around the world and can be suffered by most breeds - although it is rare in English Thoroughbreds. Here we look at what causes this condition and what you can do to help a horse that suffers from it.
What are the symptoms?
These include severe itching, hair loss, skin thickening and flaky dandruff. Sometimes weeping sores may occur and these can, if left untreated, develop secondary infections.
Where are the symptoms seen?
Horses and ponies are most commonly affected along the top of the tail and the mane but the problem may also be seen on the neck, withers, hips, ears, forehead, sheath and mid-line belly.
Animals with sweet itch will roll frequently and scratch themselves on anything handy - if they can't find anything to rub on they may scratch out their mane using their hind feet, or bite their own tail, or drag themselves along the ground to scratch their belly.
Although the symptoms are seen during spring, summer and autumn, they can persist into the winter months which means that severely affected animals barely have a break.
How is it caused?
Sweet itch is an allergic reaction to insect bites and therefore an immune system problem. As the horse tries to repel the invading insect saliva it unfortunately attacks some of its own skin cells and the resulting damage leads to the symptoms listed above. Two insects are the cause of the problem - primarly the Culicoides midge, which prefers the body areas and, to a much lesser degree, a member of the black fly family, known as Simulium Equinum, which favours the ears.
The female midges need blood to mature their eggs so they bite any nearby blood carriers - unfortunately our poor horses and ponies! The breeding season for these midges is early March to late October.
What can be done for a sufferer?
* Be aware that marshy boggy areas are a haven for the midges - so if your horse suffers from sweet itch you do not want him living in such a field. A more exposed, windy site would be preferable for a sweet itch sufferer.
* Stabling your horse at dawn and dusk is an option for some - however midges can still get into stables unless you could cover the open half door area and the window with a suitable material. Ceiling fans in stables also help create a less favourable environment for midges.
* If your horse is stabled be aware that a bored horse with an itch can do a lot of damage to his mane and tail in a very short period of time.
* There are many products on the market to help relieve the symptoms - however, every case is different and therefore the decision on what to use is yours.
* If using insecticides remember that it is an allergic reaction which is the base of the problem initially - so always skin test a small area before full treatment. A horse's skin can be very sensitive, especially when suffering with this disease.
* The base substance for most treatments and soothers is Benzyl benzoate which is available from good chemists. It is a milky-like fluid which should be worked into the skin of susceptible areas every day. Please remember that it is also a skin irritant and should not be used on broken skin or if hair loss appears.
* Midges do not like oily, greasy coats so perhaps try working diluted Medicinal Liquid Paraffin or bath oil into your horse's coat.
* Soothing creams can bring some relief, however they do not deter further midge attacks long term.
* Invest in a Boett rug which covers the areas attacked by the midges - make this investment at the first sign of a problem for your horse or pony.
Over to the owner
Unfortunately there is currently no cure for sweet itch so it is the horse owner's responsibility to manage the effects of the problem as quickly and routinely as possible to minimise the horse's discomfort. Thoroughly check your horses at least once a day and at the first sign of any irritation apply a lotion, shampoo, insecticide, rug or oil based product to the affected area. Monitor the area very closely and adjust any products accordingly.
NOTE: For products to help your horse in his fight against sweet itch take a look at our products section. We'll be adding products often so check regularly.