Horse Sweet Itch – The Causes Explained

Sweet Itch is an on-going concern for a large number of horse owners. In northern Europe, Sweet Itch poses a problem to equines during the months April to October. Other regions of the world may experience the same problems but at a different time of the year.

Although the symptoms are varied and differ greater in severity, Sweet Itch in horses is nothing more than an allergic reaction that causes unwanted skin conditions in equines.

Sweet Itch is primarily caused by the Culicoides midge, of which there are numerous sub-species. These insects are parasitic by nature. Feeding by sucking blood from their victims, the midges deposit a minute quantity of saliva at the site of the puncture wound.

Unfortunately, this midge saliva may produce an autoimmune response in your pony, horse or donkey. Once hypersensitivity has set in, all the classic signs of an allergic reaction result. Indeed, because of its all-embracing nature, the condition is sometimes referred to as equine Sweet Itch.

There are numerous blood feeding species of the Culicoides midge. For each species that seek out horses for their next meal usually concentrate their attack on a particular region of the horse’s anatomy. The areas most prone to risk of bites is the tail head, the neck, ears, head and under the mane. However, almost any area of your horse’s skin can be attacked by the midge and thus develop Sweet Itch.

Other insects and flies may bite and induce, or exacerbate already present, symptoms of Sweet Itch.

One of the chief culprits is the Black Fly. Those of the Simulium family are primarily blood feeders and have been connected with Sweet Itch outbursts. Indeed, such was the pre-eminence of one particular species of the genus Simulium in Blandford in the Englisg county of Dorset that it became known as the Blandford fly.

Even mosquito bites have been suspected of contributing to the hypersensitivity that precludes Sweet Itch. The more usual horse, horn and stable flies also fall into this category. However, it is generally accepted that the Culicoides midge is the main culprit.

The Culicoides midge breeds during the Spring and Summer months and its level of activity is dependent upon weather conditions. Like all insects, the midge is cold blooded and is most active when the temperature is higher. The midge also needs pools of calm water, boggy areas or, at the very least, moist conditions to complete its lifecycle.

The time when midges on the wing is at its height are the hours leading up to dusk and immediately following dawn. The best weather liked is warm and calm.

The happy news for most equine owners is that insect bites do not bother the majority of horses. The autoimmune response of each individual animal is different and some do not react to the bite saliva at all.

It is the widely held belief that a number of defined horse breeds are more apt to find the Culicoides midge saliva allergenic than others. Shires, Hackneys and Welsh ponies are all breeds thought to be susceptible. It is the accepted wisdom that English Thoroughbreds suffer less from Sweet Itch.

Unfortunately, the good news does not tell the whole story. With the onset of the warmer weather each Spring, thousands of horses, ponies and donkeys suffer and adversely react to insect bites. If left untreated, Sweet Itch can then progress into more serious health conditions.

Sweet Itch pays no respect to age nor gender. It is likely to develop in any horse at any time. Indeed, just as is the case in people who suffer from an allergy, once a horse’s autoimmune system takes exception and reacts to an allergen, it is highly probable that it will never lose its ability to adversely react to negatively that allergen.. That is not the full story, though.

Once a horse has fallen victim to Sweet Itch, it will not only likely suffer again and again in the coming years, but also with each recurrence the symptoms are liable to worsen.

Between years one to five is the age that a horse is most likely to suffer its first instance of Sweet Itch. However, any horse in its latter life, previously devoid of any indication of Sweet Itch, may unexpected show initial signs of the insect related itchiness.

Your horse’s surrounds can greatly effect the numbers of midges present. Obviously, the fewer midges, the less bites suffered and the less chance of Sweet Itch.

Stagnant water, marsh land, pools, calm ponds and even the seemingly harmless water trough all present the midge with the opportunity to breed, so any horse in the vicinity of these are prone to attack from the midges. It is widely thought that midges have difficulty in flying more than half a mile or so from their breeding sites. Thus, if you maintain this distance between your horse and any wet or moist locations, then the threat of midge bites to your animal will be greatly reduced.

Horse dung attracts flies and midges and some owners claim it is beneficial to remove dung daily. Certainly, daily applications of horse manure to the garden compost heap will prove to be worth their weight in gold.

Nearby cattle will encourage the presence of flies and midges. Many owners thus report improvements when horses are kept in fields inaccessible to cattle.

Strong winds or blustery conditions are the enemy of the midge. In these circumstances, these pernicious insects find it difficult to approach and settle on a victim animal. Thus, ponies, horses and donkeys found grazing in sheltered fields are more liable to the nuisance of Sweet Itch.

Finally, your horse’s overall general health and disposition may contribute to the onset of Sweet Itch. It will not be surprising to learn that many people believe that a stressed horse, or one that is poor health, is more likely to develop Sweet Itch in the first place.

Sweet Itch symptoms are usually obvious to anyone observing them.

The onset of Sweet Itch occurs when a localised region of the horse’s skin develops an irritable itch that the animal will try to scratch, rub or bite. It is not difficult to identify any horse that has Sweet Itch. Typical behaviour traits are continual shifting and agitation, swishing of the tail and tossing of the head. Repeated rubbing or biting at the effected part of the body is another sure sign of localised itchiness.

Frequent rolling on dusty ground is yet another tell-tale sign that your horse is experiencing itchiness.

If you begin to observe your horse displaying any of these behaviours, you should immediately start a administering a treatment course. Do not delay in this as relatively harmless symptoms can quickly degenerate into something more serious. The horse may soon develop hair loss with scuffed and broken manes. Other symptoms include, mid-line dermatitis, bare patches on the body, crusted skin with scabs, ulcerations, skin lesions and open wounds. Without treatment, secondary bacterial infections may set in. Weight loss may result.

With progress into the cold winter months, midge activity will cease and your horse’s hypersensitivity will gradual decrease. Thus, with time, all displayed symptoms may disappear.

Owners inexperienced in the scourge of Sweet Itch may believe that the Winter respite means that their horse has fully recovered. This is not so. Allergies invariable surface again if exposure to the irritant, in this case the midge saliva, reoccurs.

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