What is Sweet Itch

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What is Sweet Itch?

what is sweet itch
Baldness and lesions caused by a horse suffering from Sweet Itch

Sweet Itch (Culicoides Hypersensitivity) is a medical condition that is found in horses and is caused by an allergic reaction to Culicoides midges and is a condition that has been found to affect horses across the globe.

Also known Seasonal Recurrent Dermatitis (SSRD) or Queensland Itch, it is a condition that can be particularly uncomfortable for equines that suffer from it, leading to them trying to itch their bodies against abrasive surfaces in order to try to relieve the itching sensation that they experience after they have been bitten.

While affected horses will look to scratch the area that they are experiencing the itching, they can cause damage and inflammation to their skin, often resulting in large areas of skin from the mane, tail or midline developing painful looking areas of the horse’s body that appear amid broken hair, bleeding and raw skin patches.

If you have ever owned a horse that suffers from Sweet Itch, it can be a challenge to keep it under control and with no definitive cure available at this time, it becomes something that needs your attention for most of the year, spanning from March to October.

What Causes Sweet Itch?

Sweet Itch (Culicoides Hypersensitivity) is caused by an allergic reaction that is suffered by an equine when it is bitten by Culicoides midges as the saliva reacts with the allergens within the immune system.

The effects happen due to the binding of allergens which result in an increase in the production of histamine and cytokines, that affect the horse’s immune system and makes their skin itchy and inflamed, taking effect during the Sweet Itch season.

Sweet Itch Symptoms

Sweet Itch is a condition that makes equine’s skin inflamed and itchy, resulting in the horse or pony having the need to aggressively rub the area affected in order to gain self-relief however by allowing this to happen, your horse is likely to break hair and skin which then results in open wounds, balding and bleeding.

There are a number of different symptoms that have been seen in horses that suffer from the hypersensitivity, including:

  • Swelling or soreness where the insects feed
  • Skin lesions – most commonly found on the mane, tail and dorsal midline
  • Ventral Midline
  • Lesions in and around the ears as well as other areas of the head are common
  • Potential exposure to secondary infection due to open or broken skin areas

Sweet Itch Treatment

Sweet Itch does not have a cure at this period in time, meaning that treatments that are available are more aimed towards allowing you to control and protect against the condition rather than eradicate it completely.

While treatments for some of the symptoms of Sweet Itch are available, many are unable to be used safely once signs of exposure have already begun and lesions have started to appear on your horse.

The only effective treatment method for the treatment of Sweet Itch is to prevent your horse from being bitten by midges again and because of this, there are a number of different categories of potential preventative treatments that you can try.

  • Insecticides and Repellents – While these have been reported to have a varied effect on being able to prevent your horse from being bitten by Culicoides midges, they make up some of the most commonly suggested treatments that owners have suggested using as a preventative method. The most commonly used treatments within this category are permethrins, benzyl benzoate and Citronella.
  • Barrier Techniques – This method is designed to protect your horse from being bitten by preventing the Culicoides midges from being able to land on the horse’s body and feed. This category includes fly masks, rugs such as ‘Boett Rugs’ or other higher quality Sweet Itch rugs as well as potential netting and barriers that would be applied near or close to the horse’s stable.
  • Immunotherapy – This method is done with veterinary assistance and will see your horse being given medication that has been developed to try to desensitise the horse from the effects of the binding of allergens following a bite. While this method has seen mixed results, research claims that as many as 80% of horses that have undertaken this treatment have seen significant improvement following their completion of the medication cycle, however, the BioEos product is only available from The National Sweet Itch Centre or ProVet in the European Union.
  • Nutritional Supplements – Many have claimed that by adding particular supplements to the feed of their affected horses they have seen an improvement in the resistance that their horse has displayed to being bitten by Culicoides midges. Testing of supplementation such as this has not been completed on a large enough scale to be able to define whether there has been a significant effect to combat the condition or symptoms, however, individuals that have tried it have reported that it has worked for their own horses. Common additives that are used include brewer’s yeast, linseed oil and in some cases garlic powder.
  • Symptomatic Control – A method that is designed to combat the symptoms of a reaction proactively, allowing the horse to be able to absorb some of the resistance into their body before the Culicoides midges have a chance to bite and effect the horse’s immune system. This is done through the feeding of antihistamines (that contain hydroxyzine) and corticosteroids which are administered via an injection by your vet, with a potential to use antibiotics to fight secondary infection only after a bite has occurred. It should be known that the use of antihistamines does come with the potential risk of laminitis and immune suppression.
  • Alternative Medicines – There is a wide range of alternative medicines that are claimed to offer benefits to horses that suffer from Sweet Itch with sulfur and wild geranium being suggested as preventative options while Lavender oil and Aloe Vera have been found to help to reduce itching as well as have a potential to speed up recovery.

Does Hogging a Horse Help Sweet Itch?

No, hogging a horse’s mane does not help with the symptoms or effects of Sweet Itch.

Although many suggest that this could help to improve the condition, there is no medical evidence that this is in fact of any benefit to the horse and instead, would reduce the level of protection that your horse would have from the length of mane that it has prior to the symptoms beginning to show.

A benefit of hogging a horse’s mane would be that you would be able to treat broken skin and bleeding areas within the mane area much easier, however, there are no clear indications that removing the hair will benefit the horse in any way.

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