(Not So) Sweet Itch
Every year, I get a handful of e-mails regarding Sweet Itch–a condition which actually goes by a variety names including pruritus, culicoide sensitivity, Queensland Itch, Summer Itch, or Summer Seasonal Recurrent Dermatitis (SSRD). No matter the name though, the condition can make horses miserable. To make matters worse, it’s notoriously difficult to treat.
That said, Sweet Itch can be treated–but it will likely take a multi-faceted approach and diligence on the part of the horse owner.
Causes/ Symptoms of Sweet Itch
Sweet Itch is caused by an allergic reaction to biting gnats (culicoides) or flies (Simulium) which are typically active from April to October. It’s not the bites themselves that cause a problem, but a horse’s sensitivity to them–and this is brought on by an imbalance within the immune system.
Therefore, if the condition is to be helped, the immune system must be our first target.
Symptoms of Sweet Itch include:
- continual rubbing of the affecting areas (horse may even rub unaffected areas because they itch all over) ;
- bites often occur around the mane/ tail area as well as the belly, but can also occur on the chest, neck, back, and rump.
- hairless or inflamed patches of skin;
- crusting or weeping sores;
- thick/ blackened areas of skin (can occur with chronic Sweet Itch); and
- symptoms which may worsen each year.
Some practical management tips which can help a horse with Sweet Itch include:
- Use fans in your barn to discourage the gnats from “hanging out” in the barn;
- Ensure pastures are well-drained to keep stagnant water from forming (this is where the gnats breed and live);
- Keep water tanks clean and filled with clean water;
- Use natural fly and pest sprays such as ones listed here or here;
- Use fly sheets and fly masks to protect your horse from biting insects; and
- Keep your horse stabled in the morning and early evening when the gnats are most active.
Nutritional Help for Sweet Itch
Because an immune system imbalance comes into play with Sweet Itch, nutrition is a crucial treatment component. Avoiding high sugar diets (which promote inflammation) can help, and sometimes even switching the type of hay you feed (or limiting pasture) can make a difference. Additionally, these ingredients have been known to improve symptoms of Sweet Itch:
- ground flaxseed or chia seeds
- Apple Cider Vinegar
- Chondroitin Sulfate
According to one source, “a combination of chondroitin sulfate, spirulina and ground linseed has been very effective for a number of itch horses.”
If the bites are already present, it may take some time (even months) to see a positive effect from these supplements, but keep at it. If the supplements are started before itch season begins, you may prevent an over-exaggerated immune response.
Topical treatments can be used in conjunction with nutrition, especially for horses with weeping or open sores. Creams that contain neem, eucalyptus, calendula or lavender essential oils can all help soothe irritated skin. Adding a coating of Vick’s VapoRub or vaseline (perhaps mixed with essential oils) also proves as a good deterrent to the biting insects and can even help soothe the skin. If you’d prefer to go a more natural route, a chest rub such as this one can be substituted.
If the bites get bad, I wouldn’t hesitate to get your vet involved. He/she may want to prescribe short-term antibiotics which can be helpful in clearing up any infection. However, you do not want your horse to be on antibiotics long-term, and antibiotics, alone will not solve the problem.
Again, it’s going to take some work, and probably some trial and error on your part. But if you stick with a combination of the recommended supplements for at least six months or longer, take preventative measures, and treat skin irritation topically, you should see improvement.
Sources and Additional Reading