Treating sweet itch in horses

03. May 2021 / Guide / 2 Minutes
Treating sweet itch in horses

What is sweet itch?

Sweet itch is a common skin condition that occurs in horses that react to insect bites with severe itching. It occurs mainly in the summer months, from April to October.

What are the signs and symptoms of sweet itch?

Sweet itch usually causes severe itching for your horse. If you discover chafing or thickening of the skin and notice that your horse itches frequently in these areas, you should act quickly.

DSweet itch starts with one or more fairly harmless insect bites. This is followed by a painless rash that can quickly worsen. Therefore, check your horse for small pustules from April onwards in order to be able to counteract sweet itch in time.

The following symptoms indicate eczema:

  • Severe itching
  • Rash
  • Thickening of the skin
  • Chafing
  • Hair loss
  • Weeping wounds
  • Crusting
  • Open sores
Itchy Horse
The horse experiences itching in the affected areas of skin

The causes of sweet itch

Midges, black flies and horseflies are the main triggers for sweet itch.

Their saliva, which is injected into the horse's skin by fertilised female midges, can trigger an allergic reaction in a sensitive horse. As a result, the affected areas of skin begin to itch and the horse often rubs the areas raw.

Open Tail Patch
open sore on the tail dock

The reason for an allergy is usually due to the sensitivity of the horse. Your horse is likely to be particularly sensitive to an allergy if it has a compromised immune system. Additional factors include the horse's housing conditions, general health, feeding and stress levels.

Other causes can be the following:

  • Too much grazing
  • Lack of exercise
  • Problems with the gastrointestinal tract
  • Chafing
  • Stress
  • Too much protein and carbohydrates

How can I prevent sweet itch?

With continued care and proper precautions, you can prevent sweet itch in your horse and get a good handle on any eczema that has already occurred.

First of all, keep an eye on the causes listed above and eliminate possible triggers.

To prevent your horse from being bitten by midges in the first place, you should prevent contact with midges and insects in general. You can do this by regularly spraying your horse with fly spray and covering it with a good fly or sweet itch rug.

In addition, avoid riding when midges are most active. Midges are most active early in the morning and at dusk, especially near bodies of water, forest edges and dung heaps. Your horse's daily place of residence (pasture/open stable/paddock) should therefore preferably be as far away from such places as possible.

My horse is affected by sweet itch - How can I treat it?

In order for your horse to enjoy the summer again, you can treat sweet itch with some personalised treatment options and get it under control.

In order to be able to successfully counteract sweet itch, you should prioritise the following two overriding goals:

  1. Avoid contact with insects as much as possible
  2. Alleviate clinical symptoms that have already occurred

The best way to avoid contact with insects is to first check the location and see if it is a popular insect hotspot (water/ forest edge/ dung heap). If this is the case, you should relocate.

You can also spray your horse with a fly spray and treat it with deltamethrin or permethrin every 10-14 days.

Using a sweet itch rug

A sweet itch rug is made of light fabric and, compared to the classic fly rug, covers the most frequently affected areas (tail/mane), ensuring that midges no longer have an opportunity to bite your horse. If your horse already suffers from sweet itch, the rug supports the healing of the affected areas and also relieves the associated itching.

Riding rugs Fly rugs
Riding rugs protect from the pesky flies

Sweet itch rugs are also available for riding out, which you should definitely avoid at peak times even with the rug.

Matching fly & sweet itch rugs

Alleviate symptoms

The best way to alleviate clinical symptoms that have already appeared is to make sure your horse is protected from new bites and provide regular preventive care. You should care for the irritated skin areas and treat possible scales and encrustations with suitable skin care products. Wounds can also be cleaned with physiological saline solutions.

Cortisone therapy is another option for treating sweet itch. Lifelong hyposensitisation therapies can also help to achieve success. In this case, your horse is given an ever-increasing amount of the allergen in order to get its body used to it.