Sweet Itch in Horses and the 5 Best Treatment Options

May 19, 2018

Sweet itch is the frustration of horse owners the world over. Occurring everywhere from Canada to Australia to Africa, this particularly persistent skin problem can make your horse absolutely miserable.

The constant itching is enough to drive many horses to rub themselves raw and owners to tear out their hair in desperation.

Stubborn as this problem is, there are many steps that can be taken in order to treat and manage it.

First, let’s look at what sweet itch actually is and how its caused.

What is Sweet Itch?

Sweet itch is a severe and common skin disease in horses, causing constant itching and irritation. The horse will generally itch all over, but particularly on the mane, face, and tail areas.

The Horse will try to relieve the terrible itching by rubbing themselves against any available surface. Some horses can be so severely affected that they rub their skin raw, and many horses completely rub out their manes and tails.

Apart from the obvious discomfort your poor horse is enduring, they can look utterly dreadful with their patchy coats and bald tails, so this skin issue can keep your horse out of the show ring.

The itching can be so severe that some horses can’t tolerate tack or a rider on their sore skin anymore. I had a pony in my yard with sweet itch so severe that she had no mane at all, and her entire tail was bald and scaly except for a little tuft right at the bottom.

Sweet itch is caused by an allergic reaction, most likely to the bite of the Culicoides midge. These little blighters are most active in summer, particularly in wet areas, and as they can also carry more serious diseases – such as African horse sickness and equine encephalosis virus – their management is very important.

5 Sweet Itch Treatment Options

Management of sweet itch can be achieved in three different ways: symptomatic relief, control of midges, and immune therapy to mitigate the allergic reaction.

There are a variety of products and methods on the market that can be helpful.

1. Insect Repellents

While their effects can be short-lived, there are many repellents on the market that are effective at keeping midges from biting your horse in the first place.

Short-term, they’re cheaper than buying a fly sheet – and unlike fly sheets, your horse can’t destroy them in the paddock on the first day!

Repellents do have to be applied carefully and with attention to the manufacturer’s instructions. Some horses can be allergic to certain repellents (and horses with sweet itch tend to have other allergies as well), so be sure to test each product on a small area of your horse’s skin before using it.

Pay attention to the ingredients, too. In incorrect dilutions, citronella can have an attractive effect on midges; and DEET, while effective, is not a natural remedy.

Farnam Repel-X Insecticide & Repellent for Horses, 32 fl. oz.

Farnam Repel-X Insecticide & Repellent for Horses, 32 fl. oz.

Every tack shop will have something for the flies, but products are also available at Amazon- Such as the Farnam Repel-X Spray

and Horse Loverz – Pyranha Wipe N Spray Fly Spray

2. Stable Management

Management plays a major role in keeping biting insects away from your horse. These nasty critters see horses as a food source, but they also need a breeding ground – as it’s the breeding females that need your horse’s blood – and this is provided by standing water.

Eliminating standing water from around the stables can be as simple as emptying washing water troughs every day instead of just topping them up, tipping out containers around the stable that fill up with rainwater, and ensuring the stableyard’s drainage prevents puddles.

Fans installed in the stables will prevent the tiny midges from flying around the horses.

Cube PRO Pynamite Mosquito Misting System, small 26 inch cube still 55 gallons with 30 Nozzle Kit and FREE Misting Concentrate

Cube PRO Pynamite Mosquito Misting System

Other products can be used to catch and kill the midges that do get into the yard. Options include fly strips such as these ones on Amazon.

and the priciest yet most effective option is an automated sprayer that puffs insecticides into the air at intervals. Such as the Cube PRO Pynamite Misting System

 

3. Fly Sheets

Fly sheets are the most effective way to keep midges (and other biting insects) off your horse. They’re made of a very light, fine mesh that allows the skin to breathe and the horse to stay cool, but prevents bugs from landing on the skin.

They can be expensive, but the cost can be worth it as you can save on fly sprays and other products. They do need to be fitted carefully or they’ll also cause rubs.

Some horses will also destroy them in a few days, making them uneconomical to use.

Bucas Buzz Off Zebra Fly Sheet

Bucas Zebra Fly Sheet

Most fly sheets, like this Horze Freja Combo Fly Sheet, have a neck hood and belly flap for additional protection.

Others like the Bucas Buzz Off Zebra Fly Sheet come in fun colors and patterns that also repel flies.

4. Topical Treatments

For the pony that I mentioned earlier in this article, the quickest relief we could give her was brought about by a lotion that we rubbed into her sore and itchy skin twice a day.

Nothing makes the symptoms of sweet itch better as quickly as a soothing lotion. These are often herbal and natural, based on essential oils and containing repellents to keep the midges off as well.

In order to provide continuous relief, these do need to be applied according to manufacturer’s instructions. A once-off smear of lotion won’t do your horse much good at all.

Equi-Spa Not So Sweet Itch Gel Formula

Equi-Spa Not So Sweet Itch Gel Formula

Most local tack shops will have something in stock, but Amazon also has a few options, like the Equi-Spa Not So Sweet Itch Gel Formula.

5. Immune Therapy

Where topical treatments won’t relieve the symptoms and even your best efforts at midge control fail, more invasive measures will have to be taken.

While many owners self-medicate their horses with antihistamines designed for humans, taking wild guesses at the dosage, this isn’t recommended unless you’re instructed to do so by a veterinarian. Nobody likes paying vet bills, but if your horse’s constant itching simply isn’t finding relief, your best bet is to have your vet come out and examine him.

They may prescribe oral medications that you can put into his feed, but most likely will also give him an injection of an immune suppressant and anti-inflammatory like cortisone.

They will also have the best advice on management and symptomatic relief. Where you’re in any doubt, always call your vet.

Conclusion

Frustrating as sweet itch is, there are many ways to manage it and give your horse his quality of life back.

It’s best to start with the more natural options like lotions and fly sheets, but if your horse’s reaction is particularly severe, more desperate measures will have to be taken.

Ultimately, your vet will know best when it comes to dealing with this persistent and irritating problem.

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