SWEET ITCH - Causes, symptoms and managing this condition

Sweet Itch

Sweet Itch or Summer Seasonal Recurrent Dermatitis (SSRD) is a problem that affects horse's, ponies and donkeys in many countries around the world. Virtually all breeds can be affected.

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.

Symptoms include severe itching, hair loss, skin thickening and flaky dandruff. Weeping sores may occur if left untreated which can become infected.

sweetitchquartersand tailThe top of the tail and the mane are most commonly affected, however the neck, withers, hips, ears, forehead, sheath and mid line belly are also susceptible.

Remeber Sweet Itch is an allergic reaction and therefore an immune system problem.

In the process of repelling the invading insect saliva the horse attacks some of its own skin cells 'by mistake', consequently the damaged cells cause the symptoms described as Sweet Itch.

The culprits are two fold, the Culicoides midge which prefer the body areas and the Simulium Equinum who like the ears.

They live in herbage and trees as a rule and breed from as early as March until late October, within wet soil or decaying vegetation, like the muck heap.

Summers of alternately sunny and rainydays unfortunately cause an increase in midge breeding habits hence the increase in population.
sweet itch_tail
Try to avoid clay based pasture during these months as the larvae will be harboured in the moist ground, keep all pasture well drained and if possible, move your horse to an exposed windy site.

Stabling your horse at dusk and dawn is an option for some, however be aware that a bored horse with an itch can do a lot of damage to mane or tail in a very short period of time.
A ceiling fan in the stable would be helpful as it can create a less favourable environment for the midges.

There are many products on the market to help relieve the symptoms however every case is different and therefore you might have to try a few before your horse shows any signs of relief. 
sweet itch_tail_only
If using insecticides remember it is an allergic reaction which is the base of the problem so always skin test before you apply a 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 in the skin of susceptible areas every day.

Please remember this is a skin irritant and should not apply on broken skin or if hair loss appears.

Midges do not like oily, greasy coats, so perhaps try diluted Medicinal Liquid Paraffin or bath oil.

Soothing creams can bring some relief however they do not deter further midge attacks long term.

Unfortunately there is no current cure for Sweet Itch, however it is the owner's responsibility to manage the affects as quickly and routinely as possible to minimise the Horses discomfort.

Thourghly check your horse 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.
For more A-Z of horse aliments including Ringworm Thrush and Laminitis read more