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Dealing With An Itchy Horse

Posted by Caribu Team on July 23, 2019

Your horse driving you crazy with itch?

What causes an itchy horse and what can I do to manage It?   

The usual cause of an itchy horse is a hypersensitivity to the bites of sand flies (midges) of the species Culicoides. While the bite of the midge is an irritation, some horses develop sensitivity to the bite and will rub themselves so much that they cause injury to their skin and destroy their rugs in the process.

Often referred to as Queensland Itch, Sweet itch, Recurrent Dermatitis, Summer Itch or the scientific terms, Culicoides Hypersensitivity.

The cause is actually an allergic reaction to chemicals in the saliva of the midge. When this reaction occurs, specific chemicals are released in the skin. These chemicals cause an irritation, which in turn causes the horse to scratch and rub.

It occurs in varying degrees of severity in horses of various breeds, and there appears to be a genetic link. The culicoides midges feed primarily at dusk and dawn, and tend to feed on the horse at specific sites, particularly around the head, tailhead, withers, and base of the mane; however other areas, including the chest, back and rump can also be affected. The midges like to breed on the wetland, and around rivers, lakes and standing water, so susceptible horses kept close to these conditions are more likely to be affected.

Itch Symptoms

Affected animals are very itchy and distressed and rub and bite themselves intensely. The bites form blisters, which can weep, causing crusting, scabs and scaling. Prolonged rubbing and biting can results in hair loss and damage to the skin, with sometimes bleeding open sores.

Occasionally secondary bacterial infections can occur. In the long term, skin thickening and loss of hair pigmentation may occur. While horses don’t die from 'Queensland Itch', badly affected horses are of little use as working or pleasure animals as the itching makes them difficult to work. The damage to their coat also makes them look terrible.

 

Keeping midges away – management strategies:

 

  • Prevention is by far the best option. The best thing for an itchy horse is a physical barrier like a horse rug. And if you can start rugging early in the season you have a much better chance of getting a longer life from your rugs as your horse won’t have a chance to get itchy!
  • I know it is sad to see a horse on a hot day with a rug on, but it is the most effective means for preventing the little blighters from biting your horse. Try to use a light but durable rug as sweat will simply irritate the matter.
  • At Caribu we recommend our either our 140gsm, 270gsm or 410gsm Fly Mesh Rugs which are strong, but cool, with a tight weave to keep most of the insects at bay. We have designed these with Attached Hoods to include enclosed ears and for the horses that also suffer from the itch around their eyes, we have eye covers that can be bought separately and sewn directly to the hood.
  • You could also use ripstop or even flag depending how hard your horse is on rugs and how hot summer gets in your part of the world.
  •   If your budget allows – a stable with insect screening and a fan - as midges are not strong fliers. This is an option for early morning and late afternoon when the midges are at their most active. For most of us, this remains a pipe dream.
  •    Breeding areas for midges should be eliminated i.e. standing water.

 

Insect Repellents become the next level of defence.

Horses should be sprayed or rinsed with a suitable product to help deter the midges. There are lots of different options on the market from pyrethrum based chemicals to the more natural alternatives like Heritage Downs Bug Spray and Intensive Treatment. However, any sprays or rinses should be applied over a small area of skin initially to test for any reaction. Many of the natural oil-based products are the most effective. We continually hear great results with Heritage Downs range. If the irritation is well underway, daily bathing with a suitable medicated shampoo can help affected animals, by removing the saliva irritants and scabs and scales of the skin can help give relief.

Lastly, not all itching or rubbing in horses is caused by Queensland Itch. Itching in horses can be caused by many things, including a variety of contact allergies and even a form of worm infestation.

If you are unsure whether your horse has, Queensland Itch or some other skin condition, consult with your veterinarian for full advice. 

The following Link has a Full Range of products for Fly & Insect Protection.