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Equine Sweet Itch

Equine Sweet Itch is one of those problems that nearly every horse owner will face sooner or later.

Also known 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 be induced by a variety of insects and other, unrelated, conditions. However, the main insects responsible for incidences of Sweet Itch are bites received from midges, horse and black flies. Stings from wasps and bees may also prompt an allergic reaction. 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. The horse will incessantly rub against objects in an attempt to relieve the itchiness, but in doing so will likely exacerbate the condition, breaking the skin and opening up the possibility of secondary infections.

The typical tell-tale signs of Sweet Itch are a hardening of the hide, mane and tail damage, bald patches on the body and flaking skin. In severe cases, weeping sorer, ulcerated skin and open lesions will be evident.

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.

Preventative measures focus on preventing insect bites by one means or another.

Rugs and face masks are used to form a physical barrier across the horse’s skin. Unfortunately, it is impossible to completely cover the horse and there will always be tracts of skin left vulnerable to insect bites.

Confining your horse to stables as soon as you notice the midge season has started is perhaps the most effective preventative measure owners can take. Fitting any stable openings with an insect screen will increase the effectiveness. 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.

For instance, those containing benzyl benzoate, to be effective, need to be thoroughly rubbed into the skin. 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.

Remedies including glucocorticoids have been found to be of benefit, but care should be taken. Pregnant mares and horses prone to laminitis are not suited to these formulations.

As is normally the case with health matters, prevention is better than cure. Therefore, insecticides and repellents will prove most effective if applied before any incidences of insect bites have occurred.

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. It is therefore highly desirable to use an antipruritic to reduce the 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. These finding have not been corroborated by formal veterinary studies though. Therefore, the usefulness and extent of their worth is open to question.

Regretfully, regardless of what measures and treatments you employ, once a horse has Sweet Itch, you will most probably be able to eliminate it completely until the midge season finishes. So, managing the symptoms will become you most important line of defence. 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.

Sweet Itch is best prevented but, once symptoms display, equine owners need to manage the condition. Horse Shield offers a product to do just that. With Horse Shield, the problems associated with Sweet Itch can be successfully combated. Equine owners that have unwanted skin conditions themselves will also find practical healthy skin maintenance advice on the Derma Shield website