Managing Sweet Itch

As summer approaches (and misses ) Sweet itch once again becomes a problem that many horses and their owners are faced with.

Sweet itch is usually viewed as an allergic response to midge bites, or more precisely the saliva from midges. This then causes the horse to release chemicals that cause a swelling on the skin and for the affected area to become itchy.

The classic signs that we see are shown in the diagram below.

picture of horse with sweet itch
Horse showing classic signs of sweet itch

The horse usually becomes uncomfortable with the itching and starts to rub the affected area.

This results in the signs that we see in the picture where the coat is rubbed and the skin becomes very tender to touch.

Signs of Sweet Itch

Sweet itch has a number of symptoms and can be confused with other skin infections such as lice infestations or other allergies. Sweet itch typically disappears over the winter and reappears once the midges come out in the late spring and summer.

  • Mild to severe itching and rubbing, usually along the mane, back and tail
  • Loss of tail and mane hair
  • Bald patches, which can look ugly and grey due to permanent hair loss and skin damage
  • Areas of sore, open, broken skin, which tend to bleed
  • In some cases, itching along the legs and under the belly (Horse & Hound)

 

Why Only Some Horses?

Although any kind or age of horse can get sweet itch it is often more prevalent in ponies and Shire horses, and often becomes worse with age.

Midge biting
Midge bite releases saliva, which triggers the release of chemicals similar to histamine which causes swellings in the horse (Image courtesy of HorsetalkNZ)

The rather scary picture above shows (an enlarged) midge biting the horses skin. The little aliens are chemicals released under the horses skin as an allergic reaction to the saliva.

Preventing Sweet Itch

The most common meted of preventing sweet itch is to rug the horse using a special fly rug. These can be purchased from most equine suppliers.

Flysprays are another important tool in the fight against sweet itch, but you need to be careful as some flysprays can aggravate sensitive skin and ares where there are open sores caused from rubbing too much.

 

Cures and Treatments for Sweet Itch

There are currently no cures available for sweet itch, so most work is either prevention and/or treatment. However according to Equus magazine the following techniques have proved to be easy to mange and affective in addition to using flyspray to try and keep the midges away.

  • Use fly sheets designed or modified to extend at least halfway down the horse’s tail, thereby covering areas that gnats especially like to attack.
  • Add cider vinegar the horse’s feed.
  • Apply small amounts of Avon’s Skin So Soft bath oil to the most vulnerable areas.
  • Apply menthol products, such as Vick’s VapoRub or a cheaper generic version, to susceptible areas.
  • Feed the horse about 2 tablespoons of garlic powder two times a day to make his sweat smell garlicky and repel the flies.
  • Braid Bounce or another brand of scented dryer sheets into the horse’s mane and tail, and rub them over the horse.

Other ideas include

  • Use baby oil, liberally applied to the root of the mane and tail
  • Only allowing susceptible ponies to graze VERY early in the morning (before the midges are up) or VERY late evening after dusk, to ensure the midges are away (depends on your own area and where your midges like hanging out)
  • Giving a weekly bath with a medicated shampoo to relieve the itching and soreness.

 

Some of the more bizarre remedies for Sweet Itch

Looking around the internet for other ideas, I also came across a suggestion to use Mosquito Magik on the horse, which is actually a mosquito repellent that humans can drink like a mineral water. It claims to boost the immune system to respond better to mosquito bites, probably a lot like quinine was used in the old days against Malaria and mosquito bites in Africa (although you could have Gin with that because it was found in tonic water).

Picture of Marmite Jar

The other amazing one also used by humans as a midge and fly repellent is Marmite! It can also be given to horses in their feed and improves their condition against sweet itch apparently.

If there are any other suggestions (preferably tried and tested) please share them in the comments section below and you can assist fellow equine sufferers trying to deal with this condition.


Further Reading

Other articles on summer equine health on this website are;

I hope you enjoyed the article and if so please do share on your own social media sites, thanks.

 

2 Comments

  • Julia mantell

    October 15, 2016 at 6:14 am Reply

    I read your blog with interest and found some helpful advice. But please- just one thing – the absolute WORST time to turn out a pony with sweet itch is early morning and dusk as that is when midges are at their worst, this is the time to totally avoid. The best treatment I have found is CAMROSA ointment which heals the skin and acts as a barrier.

    • Marie

      October 23, 2016 at 9:28 am

      Hi Julia, thanks for the comment I know you are right about early morning and dusk I think the article I read was saying to release them very very early before the midges come out and/or very late when midges have gone. However this depends on where you live and the type of midges you have especially if you are near heavy dense undergrowth or lots of damp areas (Ireland). I will add a clarification to the article, thanks again. – Marie

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