August 26, 2021 4 min read
Itchy skin is awful for everyone. Just one little mosquito bite can keep us up at night itching and scratching. If you’ve ever suffered from an itchy skin condition, then you know how all-consuming it can become. A horse suffering from sweet itch feels the same way.
Sweet itch is the colloquial name for insect bite hypersensitivity. This condition is an allergic reaction to the bite of any one of a wide number of blood-sucking bugs, including mosquitoes, gnats, no-see-ums, black flies, stable flies, and horn flies. Most often it’s a reaction to the saliva of the female midge. Signs of sweet itch include inflamed lumps, oozing scabs, and severe itchiness.
While a sure-fire way to tell if your horse is suffering from sweet itch symptoms is to look for the tell-tale scabby, oozing lumps near their ventral midline, mane, tail, or ears, your horse may also present other behaviors that are lesser known signs of this common condition.
*Please note, it’s important to contact your veterinarian any time you notice your horse exhibiting unusual behaviors.*
Is your horse coming in from the pasture with more nicks, scrapes, and abrasions than usual? Have you noticed some of your fence boards are warped, cracked, or broken altogether? If you watch your horse closely, you may notice him rubbing on everything he can find: fencing, buckets, the sides of his shed, the bars of his stall, even his salt block holder. This behavior is a sure sign your horse is very, very itchy.
Excessive rubbing is one way your horse is attempting to find relief from the symptoms of sweet itch. When you notice your horse rubbing, check his living environment for anything he could get caught on. Serious injuries can occur if your horse is wearing a halter and it gets stuck on a fence post or salt block holder. Unfortunately, rubbing can lead to hair loss and abrasions from scratching on sharp edges.
Hair loss near the mane or tail is a symptom of sweet itch that is commonly mistaken for a fungus, parasite, or other condition. The mane and tail are particularly susceptible to hair loss due to excessive rubbing from sweet itch. Horses suffering from sweet itch will start to rub these areas on anything within reach, leaving bald spots and raw skin behind. Unfortunately, this starts a downward spiral of reinfection. As the horse loses its mane and tail hair, the skin is left unprotected and becomes an easy target for more insect bites.
Self-trauma occurs when a horse uses his teeth or hooves to aggressively bite and scratch at himself. When this happens, he could be trying to find relief from the intense itching caused by sweet itch. While this biting behavior does “scratch the itch” in the short term, it can lead to bleeding, wounds, and secondary infection if the insect bite hypersensitivity goes unmanaged. If you observe your horse using his teeth to scratch and then go back to his normal behavior, there’s probably nothing to worry about. But if your horse is spending the majority of his time biting at his legs or sides, then you could be looking at a symptom of a bad case of sweet itch.
Grooming is a relaxing way to bond with your horse. While many horses enjoy grooming, an itchy horse will become a bit obsessed. You may notice your horse pushing against you when currying, moving to ensure that you continue grooming a certain area, and becoming irritated or fussy when you groom other areas of the body. Because sweet itch is often located near the mane, tail, underbelly, and back, notice if your horse shows signs of itchiness when you groom these areas in particular. If he drops his head or pushes against you when grooming a specific spot, check the area for the telltale swollen lumps and oozing scabs indicative of insect bite hypersensitivity.
Every horse enjoys a good roll in the dirt, especially if your paddock has a soft sandy spot. But if you notice your horse rolling repeatedly throughout the day, it might be time to worry. Rolling can be a sign your horse is suffering from colic, but it can also be a symptom of sweet itch. After all, what better way to scratch an itchy back than rolling?
When you see your horse rolling more often than usual, take the time to evaluate his vital signs carefully. If he isn’t suffering from colic, look closely at his back. Do you notice any lumps, scabs, raw skin, or hair loss? If you see any of these sweet itch symptoms, increase your fly protection and look into changing your stable management practices, and try a protective barrier cream on your horse’s skin.
The best way to manage sweet itch symptoms is to eliminate the cause of the problem: biting insects, particularly midges. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Start by evaluating your barn practices. According to the University of Kentucky, “Bedding, spilled feed, decaying organic matter, and extremely wet areas act as breeding grounds for many flies.” To prevent your farm from becoming a breeding ground for insects, drain sources of standing water and ensure that wet bedding and manure are removed from your horse’s living environment as soon as possible. Use a harrow to drag pastures regularly to break up and dry out manure. Additional fly protection may also be needed for sensitive horses, including fly masks, boots, and sheets.
Most importantly, try Zarasyl Equine Barrier Cream on any skin lesions caused by insect bite hypersensitivity. Over a decade of scientific research has been conducted to perfect the patented, novel technology in Zarasyl Equine Barrier Cream. Zarasyl is non-toxic and non-irritating, as well as steroid- and antibiotic-free. It contains a proprietary amorphous silica with a molecular structure tailored to provide sustained delivery of orthosilicic acid to the skin. Orthosilicic acid is the bioavailable form of silicon associated with healthy connective tissue growth.