Sweet Itch Advice

What is Sweet Itch?

Sweet itch is one of the more common seasonal skin conditions that horses and ponies suffer from. It's caused by an allergic reaction to midge bites which then causes localised irritation to the skin, and is normally most prevalent along the mane, back and at the base of the tail. The reaction is caused by sensitivity to irritants within the midge's saliva which causes itchiness - in some cases extreme itchiness - which then leads horses to scratch, bite or rub at their skin in an attempt to relieve the discomfort. If left unmanaged, the repeated itching leads to bald patches and areas of sore or even broken and bleeding skin. Some horses can cause severe damage to themselves and their environment in their attempts to relieve itching, and in some occasions horses might not be able to tolerate tack.

Ponies generally tend to be more affected by sweet itch than horses, with certain breeds more prone than others. Native breeds such as Welsh Ponies, Shetlands, Connemaras and cob types seem to be more prone, with research showing that it could be genetic - foals from an affected stallion or mare are more likely to develop the condition.

Symptoms of Sweet Itch

If you suspect your horse may have sweet itch there are a few key symptoms you need to look out for. Suffers will show allergic reactions and itching between March and November, worsening in hot, humid weather and around dawn/dusk when more midges are around. Ask your vet to confirm the diagnosis of sweet itch and to rule out any other conditions prior to treatment. Your vet may wish to do intradermal allergy testing to gain a sweet itch diagnosis and rule out any other skin issues such as other allergies, fungal infections, bacterial infections or parasites.

Sweet itch symptoms include:

  • Repeated itching in localised areas (mild to severe), usually along the mane, back and tail
  • Loss of mane and tail hair due to rubbing
  • Bald patches which can progress to ugly, grey areas due to permanent hair loss and skin damage
  • Sore skin which can progess to open, broken and bleeding
  • Skin thickening from repeated breaking and healing
  • Affected areas can progress to itching along the legs and under the belly
    Irritated behaviour

How to Manage Sweet Itch

Prevention is always better than cure and it must be caught early to prevent the initial irritation.

The condition is much easier to control and manage before any itching begins, because of the amount of damage a horse can cause to itself. Using a good quality sweet itch rug from February/March onwards (which includes coverage of the poll and tail) provides first defense against midges. Further insect control is essential to prevent midges from biting, including the regular applications of effective insect repellents and stabling your horse during the times that midges are more active from about 4pm to 8am (dusk to dawn).

If possible, move your horse to a more open, exposed field where it tends to be breezy. Midges tend to be worse around areas of woodland and water, especially standing or stagnant water, so it's highly important to graze horses away from these areas if possible. Midges breed in smaller areas of water such as water troughs and buckets, so they should be cleaned often. 

If your horse has already started scratching it's essential to break the itch-scratch cycle as quickly as possible. If medicated treatments are needed they must be applied as required, often on a daily basis. The medicated treatments will control the itch and soothe the skin, as well as sometimes to resolve any secondary skin infections. Tablets and/or injections are also an option from your vet in extreme cases.

Sweet Itch Rugs

When shopping for sweet itch rugs we recommend choosing the best quality you can afford with the most coverage possible. The material needs to be made from small enough mesh to prevent tiny insects and midges from passing through, but breathable to keep your horse cool.

The Shires Highlander Plus Sweet Itch Rug is our year-on-year best seller - it offers full protection and coverage from poll to tail, including a full belly piece that secures with three surcingles. The neck fastens securely and fully with velcro, closing snugly to prevent any insects from getting inside the rug. Designed with adjustable buckle front closure and shoulder gussets, this rug will comfortably fit a wide range of different horses.

If your horse won't tolerate a rug which reaches over the poll and around the ears - or if you struggle with fit - a suitable fly mask can be used to cover this area instead.

Shop more sweet itch and fly protection here.

Products We Recommend

Killitch from Carr Day Martin is one of the products we would recommend for treating sweet itch. It works as both a preventative and a treatment, and is both licensed and proven for use to give you full peace of mind.

How to use Killitch:

Make sure you wear gloves to apply Killitch.

All areas requiring treatment need to be kept clean by shampooing and rinsing well once a week - this gives Killitch the best possible chance to effectively treat the area.

Use Killitch as soon as sweet itch is diagnosed and for the rest of the sweet itch season. The initial application should be made twice daily, reducing to one daily and then 3-4 times per week as the irritation lessens.

Apply by gently rubbing Killitch into the affected area either with your fingers or with a soft cloth.

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