What To Do About the Itchy Horse

There is no one answer to solving the problem of the itchy horse.

Photo: iStock

Itchy skin is the pits, for horses and humans alike. It can become so severe in some horses that they scratch their skin raw, leaving open wounds prone to infection. Medical treatment isn’t always an option, due to drug sensitivities or competition rules, so managing the itchy horse can quickly become a perplexing and frustrating challenge for horse owners.

Suzi White, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, professor emeritus of the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and Julia Wilson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, of the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine and the Equitarian Initiative, hosted a forum at the 2016 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 3-7 in Orlando, Florida, to share ideas and discuss potential solutions to itchy horse problems.

Gnats, flies, and Culicoides (biting midges) species are major causes of itching. Some horses are allergic to proteins in the saliva of biting midges and can develop an extreme adverse reaction. Unfortunately, it is not possible to eliminate flying pests completely, so it’s very important to manage these horses’ environment and apply protective measures.

Commercial grade fans made for barn use help prevent pests from getting close to and landing on horses. Turning horses out at night when insects are less active can reduce exposure. Removing standing water, wet vegetation, and other potential breeding grounds for flies and mosquitoes also helps reduce insect populations.

Certain plants cause allergic reactions in some horses. Identifying and removing these should reduce the problem. In addition, dust and mold particles from bedding or hay potentially stick to and irritate the skin, especially if the horse gets sweaty. Wetting hay or altering bedding could provide some relief.

Tools for the Fight

Shade and physical barriers are valuable for protecting skin. Fly sheets treated with pyrethrin are useful but become ineffective as the compound fades; re-treating or replacing these might be necessary to maintain effectiveness. Sheets should be lightweight, light-colored, and reasonably clean. Dirt attracts more insects, not to mention that the combination of sweat and dirt can irritate sensitive skin.

Rinsing a sweaty horse with cool water can also provide some relief. Bathing with a mild, medicated shampoo formulated for horses cleans the skin without stripping natural fats and oils that provide a barrier of protection from insects and environmental irritants.

Bug sprays offer varying levels of protection. Active ingredients in a spray should make up at least 2% of the total ingredients, so be sure to check labels. Water-based sprays are preferential to oil-based, as the latter potentially creates an impervious barrier that can heat skin and aggravate what is already itching. Spot treatments can be effective, but some horses are sensitive to them and can develop irritation or burns. A horse’s sensitivities can change, even to products used successfully in the past, so observe animals closely after applying any product

Supplements or Medication?

Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties and could be helpful for easing inflammation associated with itching and allergies. Although they’re unlikely to cure the problem, omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties and offer good nutritional support for horses with allergic reactions.

Anti-inflammatory drug intervention is sometimes necessary to stop the itching cycle but isn’t meant for long-term use. Your veterinarian will determine if and when medication is appropriate.

Allergy Testing

There is still a lot to learn about intradermal testing (IDT, or skin testing) for allergies, but White noted that it can be a valuable treatment tool. Test results allow veterinarians to customize allergy shots for individual horses. Chances are horses have multiple sensitivities, and treatment can address these. Some might be found in the environment or diet and can be eliminated. Allergy treatment take anywhere from six months to two years, but it essentially “retrains” the immune system to reduce reactions to itchy stimuli. Veterinarians advise owners to stick with treatment for the full benefit to be realized.

Take-Home Message

There is no one answer to solving the problem of the itchy horse. Multiple strategies are necessary, including decreasing exposure to triggers, and committing to long-term management.

About the Author

Nettie Liburt, MS, PhD, PAS

Nettie Liburt, MS, PhD, PAS, is an equine nutritionist based on Long Island, New York. She is a graduate of Rutgers University, where she studied equine exercise physiology and nutrition. Liburt is a member of the Equine Science Society and is currently senior equine nutrition manager for Mars Horsecare US/Buckeye Nutrition.

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