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Ditch the Itch: Saving Your Horse's SkinBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · March 23, 2017

Few horses are immune to the occasional itch, but some horses are prone to severe itching and subsequent scratching.

Major causes of itch include gnats, flies, and biting midges, also known as Culicoides. Some horses are allergic to bites and have an extreme reaction. Unfortunately, it is not possible to completely get rid of flying pests. Therefore, avoidance techniques and environmental management are important.

Certain plants, as well as dust and mold particles from bedding and hay, potentially stick to and irritate the skin, especially if the horse gets sweaty. Removing offending plants, wetting hay, or altering bedding can help minimize irritants.

Tools for the fight. Shade and physical barriers are essential for skin protection. Lightweight, light-colored fly sheets and masks are useful, but they should be kept reasonably clean. Dirt will attract more insects, and the combination of sweat and dirt can irritate sensitive skin. Commercial-grade fans will help minimize pests in stabling areas.

Rinse a sweaty horse with water but avoid harsh detergents, which can remove the natural oils that provide a barrier of protection. Instead, use a mild shampoo for sensitive skin. A veterinarian should be able to suggest an appropriate shampoo for sensitive horses.

Bug sprays have varying levels of effectiveness. 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, the latter potentially creating an impervious barrier that can heat skin and aggravate itching. Keep an eye on your horse for any adverse reaction to bug repellents.

Supplements, medication, and allergy shots. Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in EO•3, have anti-inflammatory properties and are potentially helpful for easing inflammation associated with itch and allergy. Although unlikely to cure the problem, omega-3s are a helpful part of sound nutritional support.

A veterinarian will determine if medication is warranted to help break the itch cycle, or if allergy testing would be useful. Although allergy testing is not yet an exact science, it can be a valuable tool for treatment. Allergy treatment is individualized, and essentially “retrains” the immune system to reduce reactions to itchy stimuli, which takes time. Shots can take up to a year for maximum effectiveness, and even up to two years in severe cases, so patience is required.

In conclusion, there is no one answer to solving the problem of the itchy horse. Multiple strategies are necessary, including decreasing exposure to trigger factors, managing the environment, and committing to long-term management.

*White, S., and J. Wilson. 2016. The Itchy Horse. Table Topic Discussion at the American Association of Equine Practitioners 62nd Annual Convention, Dec. 3-7, Orlando, Florida.