Sweet itch can also be known as pruritus, this is when the horse has an unpleasant sensation that leads to them biting, scratching or rubbing their skin. In some cases, the sensation can be so strong that horse can cause server damage to themselves. Sweet itch is known to result from the stimulation of special nerve endings and receptors in the skin. There are three main factors that induce the itchy skin are ectoparasites/biting insects, infections and allergies.

In many cases, a server itch is made up of a number of smaller itches, each horse is different in terms of how long it will take for them to respond or react to an itch. This is known as the pruritus threshold. If the sweet itch is caused by midgets it usually appears in the spring and then settles down and can almost disappear during the winter.

Signs

  • Mild/severe itching and rubbing, this is usually along the mane, back and tail
  • Loss of mane and tail hair
  • Bald patches, which can look grey due to the permanent hair loss and skin damage
  • Areas of sore, open, broken skin which can bleed
  • Itching along the legs and under the belly

The insects that bite include:

  • Lice
  • Midges
  • Black Flies
  • Horse Flies

In some cases, it could be useful to get a vet to perform a skin scraping; this will enable them to check for skin parasites as well as bacterial, yeast and fungal infections.

Treatment

Once you have located the cause then a treatment regime can begin. This can be through a combination of medicines to treat the various causes of sweet itch. It is important that the treatment is able to tackle the cause of the sweet itch as well as give the horse relief.

In some cases, steroids can be used to help combat the irritation, but if they are not used alongside other treatments for the underlying pruritus then it is more than likely this could happen again weeks or months later.

There is also the option to make the horse as comfortable as possible, this is useful if there are any further investigations going on. Soothing emollient shampoos, solutions and spray can also be used to help ease the horse. Also, by using cold water to hose down the horse or apply ice packs to the irritated areas can help to relieve the irritation. These methods are used to ensure that the horse's skin doesn't dry out.

Prevention

  • Use midge repellent
  • Clean midge breeding areas such as water troughs
  • Stable your horse when midges are at their worst
  • Keep your horse's skin covered, this can be done using an ear to tail rug
  • If it is an allergy based sweet itch, look at changing the horses bedding to a hypoallergenic material - such as hemp or paper

Speak to your vet for guidance on remedies and the correct dosage to use.