Any horse owner that’s acquainted with sweet itch will be well aware of how irritating and uncomfortable this disease can be for our equine friends. It often requires much patience, dedication, and perseverance to get the condition adequately controlled and the horse happy. 

What exactly is sweet itch?

Many people are aware of sweet itch but confuse it with simple annoyance from biting flies, when really it is very much something more. Sweet itch is where an individual horse has an abnormally intense reaction, otherwise known as a hypersensitive (or allergic) reaction, to the bite of the Culicoides midge. Compared to the usual nuisance that is caused by flies biting, buzzing, and tickling, which is experienced by all horses. In those that have sweet itch, the midge bites cause intense itching (known as pruritus) and much discomfort. This means that just one or a small number of bites cause a far more marked reaction than would be expected in an unaffected horse. The condition tends to be seen in summer and spring when the insects are more active. 

Why is sweet itch a problem?

In horses that have sweet itch, the bites are very itchy. And it leads to the horse causing damage through excessive rubbing and biting at itself; in an attempt to provide some relief. In many cases, the worst affected areas are the mane, the withers and the base of the tail. The constant scratching often leads to grazed skin, sores, hair loss. And eventually chronic changes like the skin becoming thicker, flaky or even leading to skin infections on top. In severely affected horses, not only can they cause harm to themselves through such vigorous scratching. But they may be so afflicted as to not eat or rest properly and may understandably become grumpy. 

How do I know if my horse has sweet itch?

Often sweet itch is suspected just by looking at a horse whose owner reports that they are tremendously itchy. The mane and tail will generally show the tell-tale broken hairs, patchy hair loss, sores and thickened skin. However, as there is a wide range in severity between different individuals and because the same itching can also be caused by other things that aren’t biting midges; your vet might recommend further testing to try and narrow down the cause of your horse’s pruritus, before putting it down to sweet itch. 

How can we treat sweet itch?

The condition can be frustrating to manage and requires a few different angles of attack. 

  1. It’s key to prevent the bugs from biting, as much as is feasibly possible. It can help to limit turnout during the times that the midges are most active (dawn and dusk) 
  2. Using fly repellents, full-coverage fly rugs and face masks can all help too. 
  3. It’s also a good idea to make sure to avoid your horse being in areas of the paddock that may become waterlogged. Or where there are stationary pools of water like ponds and so on. As this is where the offending insects like to breed. 

Controlling the itch is the next step. 

  1. There are a variety of soothing creams and shampoos available. These can help to calm the inflamed and itchy areas of skin. 
  2. For horses that are more severely affected, antihistamines or other medications like steroids can help to reduce the intense itching and make them more comfortable. Steroids are generally very effective but come with their risks, so it’s important to assess each horse or pony for whether they are really necessary. 
  3. A newer substance called nicotinamide (a type of vitamin B) can also help to manage the itching in affected horses. 

Whatever the plan of attack, it’s important to be consistent in trying to minimise access to the horse by midges and to start preventative measures before the midge season really begins, in order to try and minimise the negative impact of this bothersome condition on your horse. If you think your horse might be suffering from sweet itch, it’s a good idea to get in touch with your vet and see what they may recommend to help minimise the negative impact of this annoying condition.

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