Here are steps you can take to pro­tect your horse from this al­ler­gic re­ac­tion to in­sect bites.

EQUUS - - Contents - By Lau­rie Bonner with Melinda Freck­le­ton, DVM

Sweet itch: Here are steps you can take to pro­tect your horse from this al­ler­gic re­ac­tion to in­sect bites.

Sweet itch can make a horse mis­er­able. The in­tense itch­i­ness can cause him to rub away patches of hair, leav­ing the skin un­der­neath raw and weepy. If a case is se­vere enough, the horse may be­come rest­less and thin, as he spends more time scratch­ing than eat­ing.

Tech­ni­cally known as equine in­sect hy­per­sen­si­tiv­ity or in­sect bite hy­per­sen­si­tiv­ity, sweet itch is a se­vere al­ler­gic re­ac­tion to the saliva of bit­ing in­sects, pri­mar­ily Culi­coides spp. midges and gnats but also pos­si­bly black­flies or deer flies. Sweet itch re­ac­tions can oc­cur any­where on a horse’s body but are usu­ally seen on the ar­eas where the in­sects tend to bite: on the un­der­side of the belly, un­der the mane or the dock of the tail.

The con­di­tion is usu­ally at its worst at the times of year when in­sects are most ac­tive, and it may sub­side dur­ing the win­ter. Less than 10 per­cent of horses in the United States de­velop sweet itch, and most won’t begin to show signs un­til they are at least 2 to 4 years old. The con­di­tion is more com­mon among Shires, Welsh Ponies and horses im­ported from Ice­land, but it can oc­cur in any breed.

Re­search is un­der­way to de­velop a re­li­able im­munother­apy treat­ment for sweet itch. In the mean­time, vet­eri­nar­i­ans may pre­scribe an­ti­his­tamines and cor­ti­cos­teroids to help re­lieve the signs

of the con­di­tion. But steroids carry a low but real risk of se­ri­ous side ef­fects, in­clud­ing lamini­tis. So if your horse is sus­cep­ti­ble to sweet itch, you’ll want to re­duce his ex­po­sure to the in­sects that cause it. Here are steps you can take: 1. Sta­ble your horse dur­ing peak bit­ing hours. Culi­coides spp. are most ac­tive at dusk and dawn, so bring your horse into a stall dur­ing those hours. For ad­di­tional pro­tec­tion, in­stall ul­tra­fine screens in stall win­dows and set up fans to pro­vide a con­tin­u­ous breeze over sta­bled horses. Gnats are weak fly­ers and even a slight breeze will keep them away. You might also con­sider ap­ply­ing a spray re­pel­lent de­signed for use on stall walls and other sur­faces in­side the barn. 2. Keep him cov­ered. One way to re­duce bites is to keep a fly sheet on your horse dur­ing in­sect sea­son. Made of fine mesh and equipped with clo­sures to keep out bugs, cloth­ing de­signed specif­i­cally for horses with sweet itch has ex­ten­sions to cover the neck, belly and tail, the ar­eas where Culi­coides spp. are most likely to bite. A fine-mesh mask may also be needed to pro­tect the horse’s face and ears. 3. Use fly-con­trol prod­ucts. The most po­tent prod­ucts com­bine re­pel­lents with pes­ti­cides. Look for ones la­beled for use against gnats and midges. You’ll need to be dili­gent about ap­ply­ing the sprays and wipes as of­ten as the man­u­fac­tur­ers’ in­struc­tions al­low. 4. Re­strict your herd’s ac­cess to marshy ar­eas. Gnats breed in marshy, shady ground with rot­ting veg­e­ta­tion. If pos­si­ble, move your horse to a pas­ture in a drier, more ex­posed lo­ca­tion away from boggy ter­rain. Around your barn, clear up stand­ing wa­ter in ditches and gut­ters and keep them free of leaves and other de­bris. Place ma­nure and com­post piles as far away from the horses as is fea­si­ble. 5. Try over-the-counter prod­ucts. You’ll find a num­ber of prod­ucts for horses with sweet itch, from feed sup­ple­ments for­mu­lated to re­duce in­flam­ma­tion, to top­i­cal prepa­ra­tions meant to soothe itchy, in­flamed skin. Thick, oily or sticky oint­ments are messier but may keep gnats from land­ing on the horse’s skin. They may also help keep bugs from get­ting to the skin to bite. Anec­do­tal ev­i­dence sug­gests that th­ese prod­ucts of­fer some re­lief, at least in some horses. When try­ing a new top­i­cal prod­uct, start by ap­ply­ing it to a small area to make sure it will not fur­ther ir­ri­tate sen­si­tive skin. Be care­ful with tea tree oil, laven­der and other her­bals---they are sooth­ing to some horses but can ir­ri­tate the skin in oth­ers.

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