Sweet Itch in Horses: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

Posted by Kat Tretina

In the spring and summer, many horse owners battle a condition known as sweet itch, an allergic reaction in horses.

Resulting in extreme discomfort, sweet itch can cause the horse to violently scratch itself on objects in an attempt to get relief. In the process, they can damage their skin.

While annoying and painful for the horse, sweet itch is not life-threatening and can be treated and prevented.

What causes sweet itch?

Sweet itch is an allergic reaction to the bites of culicoides midges, sometimes called “no-see-ums” in some regions. These little bugs contain allergens in their saliva and the insect bites cause allergic reactions.

The condition is common in areas prone to bugs and mosquitoes, such as farms near ponds, swamps, or bogs. Hot and humid conditions can make midge infestations worse, affecting more horses.

scratching pony

What are the symptoms?

When midges bite your horse, his skin will become swollen, tender, inflamed, and itchy. The most commonly affected areas are:

  • Ears
  • Mane and tail head
  • Stomach and belly
Sweet itch results
Horse and Hound

When equines have sweet itch, they can become desperate for relief and will rub themselves against objects, itching to the point of harming themselves. They can rub their hair right off and even break open their skin due to the swelling and irritation. Skin problems from the allergic response can result in hair loss and intense itching.

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Without treatment, the self-inflicted wounds can become infected, causing inflammation, and making the condition more serious.

How is sweet itch treated?

Veterinarians recommend prevention against sweet itch, as treating it is more difficult. Insecticides, such as fly spray or citronella oil, should be applied regularly every day in the spring and summer to keep biting midges from landing on the horse’s skin.

Fly masks, or a fly sheet and blankets can help protect the skin, particularly in the ears and belly, where horses are most prone to bites. Additionally, barn managers should minimize any standing water, such as old buckets filled with rain water or stagnant water in troughs.

Horses Wearing Fly Masks In Summer At Horse Farm.

If your horse already has signs of an allergy, keep the bites and affected areas clean and dry. Use an insect repellent to prevent it from getting worse and try to monitor how much he scratches himself. If there are any signs of broken hairs or broken skin, ointments or even antibiotics may be necessary to help the animal heal. In some cases, your veterinarian might recommend using an antihistamine like hydroxyzine to minimize the allergic reaction and soothe symptoms.

While sweet itch is not that serious, it can make your horse very uncomfortable. If left untreated, he can look for relief by rubbing on things and hurting himself. By being proactive in repelling the biting insects, you can stop sweet itch and keep your horse happy and healthy all summer long.

Has your horse ever had sweet itch? Tell us how you treated it in the comments below. 

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Sweet Itch in Horses: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention