Tail Rubbing Cures and Causes

Apr 13, 2019

Picture this: Your horse has been groomed to perfection. His coat has been washed and brushed and every hair is in place, his mane neatly trimmed and plaited, even his white socks are white instead of yellow for a change. The only thing ruining the image his the fact that he’s rubbed a fist-sized bald patch on the root of his tail, the hairs around it standing crushed and askew. For too many horse people, tail rubbing is a frustrating reality. The problem has a variety of causes, but all of them can be managed.

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Causes of Tail Rubbing

Much as tail rubbing is frustrating for the rider who cares about their horse’s appearance, it’s more than an unsightly habit. All horses itch and will scratch their butts from time to time, but if the horse’s itching is bad enough to cause broken hairs or bald patches, there is an underlying health problem that needs to be addressed. If left unattended, tail rubbing can go from simply a patch of rubbed hair to a painful, raw spot that could even get infected. The problem should be addressed promptly and preferably with veterinary assistance.

Tail rubbing normally has one of three main causes: pinworms, sweet itch, and dry or dirty skin. We’ll look at each of these causes and their solutions one by one.

Pinworms

The Problem: Pinworms are tiny internal parasites that move through your horse’s digestive system like most other worms. Their scientific name is Oxyrus equi, and the adult worms generally spend most of their time hanging out in your horse’s colon. Female worms migrate through the system to lay their eggs on the horse’s anus, then die and are expelled in the manure. The eggs cause intolerable itching of the anus and the entire dock area, causing the horse to rub his tail and buttocks on anything that stands still for long enough.

The Diagnosis: These worms are more difficult to diagnose than most. While fecal egg counts can be done to find evidence of most other types of worms, pinworm eggs are laid in the anus, so they aren’t always expelled in the manure. Scrapings might have to be done of the anus and examined microscopically. Another clue is finding the dead female pinworms in the horse’s manure; these are long, white, stringy little nasties about 15cm in length.

The Solution: Pinworms are sensitive to ivermectin and pyrantel pamoate. However, just dosing with the anthelmintic isn’t guaranteed to work due to the growing problem of worm resistance. Should a dose of the appropriate dewormer fail to solve your horse’s problem, consult your vet, as your worms might be resistant – in which case deworming again will only compound the problem.

Sweet Itch

The Problem: Sweet itch is an allergy to midges from the Culicoides genus. The females of this midge species need blood in order to reproduce, and our horses are frequently their chosen victims. While the midges are very small and their bite doesn’t really hurt, in some horses, they trigger an allergic reaction that causes terrible itching. Horses have no choice but to rub themselves on anything within reach. Faces, manes, and tails are most frequently affected. This is likely the most common cause of tail rubbing.

The Diagnosis: There is no real way to test for sweet itch, other than to treat for the condition and see if there is any improvement. Skin scrapings can be useful to rule out other causes for similar itchiness, such as mange or a fungal infection like rain scald.

The Solution: Because sweet itch is an allergy, it can’t be cured, but it can be managed. The first step is to try to prevent midges from biting your horse. In some cases a good quality fly spray, applied daily, will be good enough; in others nothing will really keep them off except for a sturdy fly sheet. Another option is to apply a calming lotion such as this one to treat the itch directly. Sweet itch requires diligent and daily management to make your horse comfortable again – be patient and persistent!

Dry Skin

The Problem: Just like us, horses can suffer from dandruff. Also like humans, dandruff often goes hand-in-hand with an itchy scalp – or, in this case, the skin of the horse’s tail or dock. Excessive dirt also causes itching, and can cause the horse to be more prone to skin infections.

The Diagnosis: Again, a skin scraping can be taken to rule out other causes of itchiness, but generally diagnosis is easy. Part the hair on your horse’s tail and have a good look at the skin in there. Horse dandruff presents itself as giant white flakes; the skin under the tail hairs should be soft and clean, but if it’s scaly or flaky, your horse probably has dry skin.

The Solution: This is an easier fix than most others, luckily for your horse. As with anything with horses, beauty comes from the inside out: consult a nutritionist to ensure that your horse is getting enough oil in his diet. A supplement can occasionally be useful. Then start to apply some elbow grease. Start with a good shampooing, making sure to scrub deeply into the hair to clean everything out well. Then condition the tail to restore its natural shine and leave the hair clean and silky. Finish up with a soothing, broad-spectrum lotion to treat and prevent dryness and other skin conditions.

Conclusion

Tail rubbing can be unsightly to humans and irritating to horses. There is a wide variety of causes, with three of the most common having been addressed here; consult your vet if you’re unsure. It’s always a good idea to start with washing, conditioning and anointing the tail with lotion, but if that doesn’t work, have a vet take a skin scraping and advise you accordingly.

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