Sweet itch: Cause, prevention and treatment advice
The Icelandic Horse is tough; it can endure freezing temperatures as well as very hot weather. However, if we had to, we would chose to put time and money on protecting the during the summer rather than during the winter without hesitation.
This choice would be based on the observation of our horses’ behaviour outside through the seasons. During the winter, the horses are happy to be outside in the wind snow and rain whereas during the summer we often see them waiting by the gate for someone to let them in: Insects and flies are bothering them.
And some of those insects can have very bad repercussions on the well being of our horses: Sweet itch, is a “sickness” which, once contracted, will come back every year.
What is Sweet Itch?
Sweet is a sly but manageable skin condition.
In short, sweet itch is an allergic reaction to the saliva of a small fly called culicoides. Once bitten, horses start to scratch, just as any of us would after a mosquito bite. Scratching is per se a normal behaviour. However, if you notice swelling and if the horse scratches so much that wounds appear on its skin, it is likely having an allergic reaction: Sweet Itch.
With the right method and time, it is possible to treat this condition which can make our horses’ lives very unpleasant.
You need to know that over the years, we have seen sweet itch-like reactions on horses that disappear completely after being treated for a few weeks. We think those reactions might come from a different source than culicoides. Their source might instead be related to feed, plants, pesticides, protein shock, strong products etc… which all affect our horses in different ways.
How should one treat Sweet Itch?
After trying a great number of different treatments and products, we eventually found a method that gives great and fast results not only on our sweet itch horses but also on horses with any other kind of skin problem (whether the condition’s source is known or not).
Before explaining our method in detail, we would like to remind you that every horse is different and that other solutions might fit your horse better than this one. Do not get stuck with this treatment if you do not notice clearly positive results after a few weeks. Of course, if you have any doubts about your horse’s condition, contact your veterinarian.
At the farm, horses that are being trained stay in boxes in the stable during the day and go out on fileds at night. During the hottest months, we try to avoid having them outside at times when most culicoides and other insects are out: sunrise and sunset. The horses are then taken into the stable around 7.30am in the morning and let out around 10pm.
In comparison, during the “culicoide free” season, they are taken in at 8.30am and go back out around 7pm.
Young horses, brood mares and horses on holiday stay out in pastures at all times. There, they have free access to clean and cool shelters in which water is provided. Those shelters partly protect the horses from insects and they are free to come and go as they like.
Here again, we notice the shelters being used much more during the summer than winter.
Sweet itch can develop anywhere on the horse’s body: mane, tail, flank, legs… For this reason, we use what we call sweet itch or anti-insect blankets. Many different ones are available on the market but in our opinion, the best ones are from “BOETT”.
We, of course, use the blankets on horses affected by sweet itch but also on newly imported horses, horses with pink skin and horses we know to be sensitive to insect bites (they seem to get small bumps where they have been bitten).
Again, if we had to chose, we would buy an anti-insect blanket rather than a fleece, rain or any other kind of winter blanket. In our opinion, it is much worse for a horse to have to protect itself from flies than from the cold.
The series of products we use both to prevent (horses we know are sensitive in the skin & newly imported horses) and to treat sweet itch is called PROB. These products are not only amazing to treat eczema but also give great results on any kind of small wound, irritation or other skin problem. They are all made of 100% natural substances and can be used on horses, dogs and humans. They can also be used on gestating animals (including you ladies) and babies or young animals.
Here is the method we use if the horse is dry in the mane/tail or has wounds after scratching:
- Shampoo the horse with PROB shampoo and let the product stay on the horse for 20-30 min before rinsing off with water.This product clears up dead skin cells and soothes irritated skin by moisturising it.If your horse’s skin problem is big, we advise to shampoo your horse everyday until you clearly notice a difference.If the horse has moderate problems we use the shampo once a week.
For lesser skin problems, shampoing once to twice a month is usually enough.
- When the horse is dry, we apply a product called PROB Oil on any wounded or sensitive area. Contrarily to what its name indicates, this is not an oil based product and it is therefore safe to put it on your horse’s skin before it is exposed to the sun.This product’es role is to disinfect, heal and moisturise wounded skin as well a repel flies. Its consistency makes it easy to use as it feels as liquid as water and therefore spreads easily between the hair.We use PROB oil up to twice a day on horses that scratch a lot and get big wounds but twice a week is enough on horses with lesser problems.
- When we go riding or let the horses out during hot summer days, we also like to use the PROB deo: a fly repellent spray that also soothes the horse.
For now, this method is the most effective we have found. And believe us, during the many years we have been caring for sweet itch horses, we have tested a great multitude of natural and artificial/chemical products. To us, BOETT and PROB are really the best on the market.
In any case, we highly recommend to horse owners of any breed, affected by sweet itch or not, to protect their horses during the summer. A great number of us only come to the field or the stables to ride our horse(s). We are then sure that our horse is doing well while we are away. But take the time to observe your horse for one day. You might then change your mind and get an anti-insect blanket or a hood for your horse.
Feel free to contact us for more information about the products we use. We would love to answer your questions and tell you more.