Horse Owners Illness Guide : Sweet Itch

Find out about sweet itch


What is Sweet itch?

Sweet itch is a condition found in horses and ponies.  Sweet itch is an allergic reaction to midge bites.  Horses and ponies affected by the condition experience swelling where the insects bite and suffer from extreme itching.  In the worst cases they can rub themselves to the point of developing sores.  The main areas of the body that are affected are along the mane, the ears, the top of the head and at the base of the tail.  However the horse will be itching over its entire body so the horse may loose hair on other parts of its body or suffer from noticeably flaky skin.  Sweet itch can cause the horse to become so intent on itching that it is unsafe to handle, but this is only in very severe cases. 

When is sweet itch most common?

Sweet itch usually only occurs during the warmer summer months during the midge season which is from around April - October. 

Is there a cure?

There is no cure for sweet itch.  The best way to treat sweet itch is to prevent it happening in the first place.

How do I prevent sweet itch from happening?

Midges prefer to live near boggy places or in areas where there is standing water e.g. a pond or river. Make sure that your horse is turned out or stabled in a field away from areas where midges like to live.  Rotting vegetation and horse droppings can also encourage midges so ensure your pasture is kept clean and that your muck heap is sited away from your horses. 

Midges come out at dawn and dusk so if possible bring your horse in to a stable and close both doors at these times to minimise their possible exposure. 

Use strong insect repellents and make sure you respray your horse twice a day to ensure full protection.  There are special rugs and masks on the market which can protect your horse from the midges by providing an impenetrable barrier to the horses skin.  Using a combination of a rug and insect repellent ensures that your horse is best protected during the midge biting season.

How do I treat sweet itch?

There is no known cure for sweet itch.  Several clinical tests are taking place to try and find one but at the moment prevention is key. 

Should your horse develop sweet itch there are various treatments.  Immunotherapy is where the immune system is stimulated repeatedly with tiny doses of the midge saliva until it stops reacting to it and the allergic reaction is prevented or significantly reduced. At the moment this form of treatment is in the early stages.  It can be very expensive and is not proven to work in all horses.

Steroids are used in very severe cases to supress the immune system, but the side effects can be very dangerous so most vets will recommend against it.

Herbal remedies can be used to help relieve symptoms and substances such as garlic can be fed to the horse to help repel the midges. 




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