Lice and mites are both common skin parasites of horses and ponies, and can be a cause of intense itching and irritation. There are many possible causes of itching (known as pruritis) in horses, including allergic, parasitic and infectious causes. When examining an itchy horse, your vet will ask you lots of questions, as well as closely examining the horse’s skin, to try to identify the problem.
Lice infestations typically cause itching of the mane and tail head areas, although can cause itchiness elsewhere on the body too. They are visible to the human eye, and can often be see moving close to the skin when the hair is parted.
Lice cause symptoms because they damage the skin. Some lice survive by chewing skin cells on the surface, and some suck blood from their host. Lice can be transmitted from one horse to another by direct contact, or from solid objects, for example by rubbing on the same fence post.
As well as itchiness, lice can cause poor coat quality, areas or hair loss, and in some cases anaemia. Lice are treated with topical washes and sprays. In severe cases, a course of antibiotics or steroid treatment may be needed to treat secondary problems arising from the infestation.
Mite infestations cause general itchiness, often with areas of thickened, crusty skin. Mites are too small to see with the human eye, but can sometimes be identified under the microscope from scrapings taken from the horse’s skin.
Mites can also be transmitted from horse to horse, and via solid objects. Horses with feathered legs are predisposed to feather mite infestations of the lower limbs. Affected horses stamp, rub and bite their legs.
The condition sometimes causes such severe itchiness that horses can damage their skin, leading to wounds and skin infections. Mite infestations can be treated with injections, topical washes or spot-on preparations. Your vet will be able to advise you on the best course of action for your horse.
Following successful treatment, the long term prognosis for horses with lice or mites is very good, with most horses regaining normal hair coat appearance and regrowth of hair within a month.
As always, if you’re concerned about your horse at all, don’t hesitate to contact the team