Wednesday 5th October, 2016
Summer is here and as any horse owner knows the return of the warmer weather can mean masses of midges. Some horses are relatively unaffected by midges, and their manes and tails will serve as excellent fly swatters when the swarms appear, however thousands of horses are highly allergic to the midge saliva. The subsequent allergic reaction, known as Sweet Itch, causes very unpleasant symptoms for the affected equine and has blighted the show season dreams for many owners and their horses during the summer months.
Sweet Itch is an allergic reaction to the Culicoides midge bite at the site where the insect feeds. The Culicoides midge, has a particular protein in its saliva which causes hypersensitivity in certain horses, and it most commonly feeds along the mane, tail, dorsal spine and forelock. When bitten these areas develop sore lesions that are pruritic, or incredibly itchy, and if the horse is particularly sensitive you may see other affected areas such as the midline abdomen, sheath in males and even the legs.
As mentioned before, the lesions that result from midge bites are intensely itchy, therefore the horse or pony will rub the area on trees, fencing, walls or stable doors whenever possible to relieve the extreme discomfort. Typical Sweet Itch sufferers exhibit broken hair and flaky, thickened skin, with chronic cases displaying areas of alopecia, broken skin, secondary infection and can be systemically very unwell. Sweet Itch sufferers will be very restless, pacing around the stable or paddock, rolling and rubbing frequently and showing excessive head shaking.
Sadly, there is no known cure for Sweet Itch at present and once they have developed the condition it very often gets progressively worse each year. Good stable management and equine husbandry is the key to stopping Sweet Itch in its tracks and the very best solution is prevention where possible. There are many ways to prevent Sweet Itch in horses and ponies however, most midges are drawn to water and breed on wetlands or in woodlands, so if you graze your equines near to standing water such as ponds or lakes or in wooded areas then why not consider moving him to a different site.
If you don’t have access to alternate grazing, you might consider stabling your horse in a well ventilated stable at dawn and dusk when the midges are most prevalent. Finally, if turning out is the only option available to you then invest in a light turnout rug complete with neck and tail guard, or a specially designed sweet itch rug that will protect these vulnerable areas from receiving unwanted bites.
There are several counter bought treatments and homeopathic remedies that can treat existing lesions and symptoms. Antihistamine can relieve the itchiness and inflammation but can cause drowsiness, so this may not be a suitable option for all horses. Severe cases may require a short term course of corticosteroids to suppress the immune system response and allow the skin chance to heal, however this should only be used as prescribed by a veterinarian. Natural insect repellents are a good choice as they are gentler on the horse’s skin and body systems, and Aloe Vera is incredibly effective in managing sweet itch symptoms as it naturally reduces itching and soothes inflamed skin.