Sunrise Session: The Pruritic (Itchy) Horse

We’ve probably all had, or at least seen, a horse with a scratching problem no one could quite figure out. In Monday’s roundtable discussion on itchy horses, veterinarians discussed just how to diagnose and manage these horses to keep them comfortable and with an unblemished hide.

“It’s very important to use management as well as products,” began Susan White, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, professor at the University of Georgia and moderator of the session. For example, if the horse’s worst problem is a sensitivity to insect bites, provide him with wind. Hang fans in the stall or wherever and direct them at the horse’s leg level.

“I’ve had clients hang fans in the pasture run-in sheds,” said White. “The horses find them immediately.”

Another option is to find out to which insects a horse might be hypersensitive, and then manage him accordingly. For example, if a horse has a problem with dusk or evening-dwelling mosquitoes, then turn him out in the daytime and apply fly repellent when you bring him in at night.

Fly repellent is definitely not a panacea, however; White estimates that 20-30% of the problem horses she sees are allergic to pyrethrins, a common class of insect repellent. Intradermal skin testing is quite useful to identify such sensitivities, she added.

When diagnosing the cause of a horse’s incessant itching, it is smart to make sure that a horse is off of steroids or any other medication that might affect his immune system’s response to testing. This is usually best done in the fall, or whenever insect activity in the area decreases. Once the cause is diagnosed, then the owner and veterinarian should plan a management program to be in place before the next year’s initial onslaught of insects.

There are many causes of persistent itching in horses, but according to White, “The main thing is to simplify diets. Today’s horse is often not on one supplement, it’s more like 14. We need to simplify what is going on with these horses.” Feed allergies are not exactly rare; White and other attendees have seen horses that quit scratching when molasses and sometimes long-stem hay were removed from their diets. Again, testing is needed to determine whether this is necessary.

Tips for owners from this session include minimizing topical repellent use where possible, using only repellents that are labeled for horses, keeping horses clean without washing them so much that there is over-drying of the skin (which can worsen itching), and minimizing horses’ exposure to whatever causes their individual problems.

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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