Solving sweet itch dilemmas

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Sweet itch is caused by an allergic reaction to the saliva of the Culicoides biting midge. Equine vet Leona Bramall discusses preventative measures and treatment.

Horses affected by sweet itch develop itching of the mane and tail and, in some cases, the face and poll. Itching begins in summer, but for some horses sweet itch can be a year-round problem.

The level of severity varies; while some horses itch themselves bald, others may develop ulceration or secondary bacterial infections.

Precautionary measures

Prevention is based on reducing exposure to the offending midges. If at all possible, avoid fields with stagnant water or those adjacent to woodland areas that inherently have high midge populations.

Horses affected with sweet itch should be stabled at dawn and dusk when the midges are most active. Fans may deter midges from entering stables.

Sweet itch fly masks and rugs also play an integral role in prevention, as do fly and insect repellents, although the effectiveness of these varies.

Veterinary intervention

Contact your vet if itching continues despite using the above preventative measures, if skin is hot and inflamed, or if you’re concerned about possible infection.

Your vet will examine your horse and may prescribe injectable, oral and/or topical (cream) medications.

Insect hypersensitivity

In addition to sweet itch, some horses can develop skin lumps (urticaria), with or without associated itching secondary to other flies and insects. Severity varies, from a small lump at the site of contact to an extensive hypersensitive response.

If your horse is stabled during the day, ensure his stable is kept as clean as possible to reduce the number of flies in the stable environment. You can also spray the stable with fly repellents, but don’t spray directly near water or feed buckets.

If the lumps are extensive, don’t appear to be resolving, or make your horse itch, seek advice from your vet.

For more advice about flies and management tips, see the full article in issue 454.

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