Managing Sweet Itch

Whilst both uncomfortable for the horse and distressing for the owner to see; there is no cure for sweet itch. We share top tips for prevention.

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Sweet itch is a common summer skin condition affecting over 50,000 horses in the UK each year. The intense itching reaction is caused by a hypersensitivity to the saliva of midges (culicoides spp) and the severity of the condition can vary from hair loss around the mane and tail to chronic thickened skin and open sores.

Sweet Itch Prevention

Whilst both uncomfortable for the horse and distressing for the owner to see; there is no cure for sweet itch. There are however numerous management options, which when combined can help keep affected horses/ponies below the itching threshold.

  1. Avoid midge burdened areas – midges reside near water courses and woodland. Horses who suffer from sweet itch should be kept away from these conditions. The ideal environment would be a windy hillside – midges cannot fly against winds greater than 5mph. Midges are also most active at dusk and dawn. Sweet itch suffers should be stabled overnight between 4pm and 8am.
  2. Modify the environment – fly screens and ceiling fans inside stables can minimise the midge population within your horse’s environment.
  3. Applying physical barriers – a well-fitting fly rug or even better sweet itch rug or body suit will protect your horse from midges whilst out at grass. Whilst there are many brands available, we recommend getting a rug that protects the neck and under belly fully. In addition to rugging, fly repellents or insecticides will help reduce exposure to insect bites. Just like rugs there are many products on the market. One of the more effective products is Deosect. This is an insecticide rinse, which once applied provides continuous protection for 2 weeks – no need for daily applications. Whatever product you use it is important to do a patch test to check for any adverse reactions before applying all over.
  4. Feed supplements – those containing Nicotinamide are known to have properties that reduce the production of histamine (the substance which causes the itch) as well as improve the quality of the skin which in turns acts as a natural barrier against the allergen. Two common supplements commercially available are: Fidavet Cavalesse and Naf D-itch. These both work with a cumulative effect which means that to get the maximum benefit from them, they need to be introduced weeks before the ‘sweet itch season starts’.
  5. Veterinary intervention – if despite implementing the above measures, your horse still becomes uncontrollably itching, steroids +/- antihistamines may be administered by your vet to decrease the itching associated with sweet itch. This is saved solely for when all else fails as the use of steroids does not come without risks, particularly the risk of steroid induced laminitis.

Sweet itch can be a really frustrating disease to manage. The key is to employ as many of the above management techniques before midge season commences (May-October; dependent on weather conditions). It is far better to prevent the itching cycle starting, than to attempt to stop the itch once it has started

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