Essential pet advice with vet Jo Gourlay

This week we continue looking at the intensely itchy and notoriously irritating condition in horses called sweet itch. Having discussed how it’s caused by a reaction to flying biting insects, most commonly the midge, and how to recognise and diagnose it, this week we finish up learning about treatment and prevention.

Although possibly not the correct order, we will start by discussing how to prevent or at least try to minimise the damage a horse does to itself, as this is the most important thing to focus on when managing equines with a known history of the problem. Once the itching takes hold it is an uphill struggle throughout the summer to control the condition until the poor beast gets a break over the colder winter months. It can be heartbreaking for the owner to helplessly watch the horse or pony suffer. All the control methods are geared at reducing the horse’s exposure to the biting insects. This should start with adequate fly repellent being used well in advance of the fly season, some people swear by adding garlic into the feed or using a garlic and molasses lick in addition to the topical repellent. The garlic smell will come out through the pores in the skin and certainly helped with general flies issues for my horses last year. Bringing horses out of the field into an airy stable at the period of peak midge activity (dusk and dawn) is important where this is possible. Hanging insecticidal strips in the stabling area, using fine mesh screens at the doorways and installing a fan will make the stable environment even better (midges are weak fliers so the more air movement the better within reason). When out in the field special sweet itch rugs and masks should ideally be used, these are light weight and ventilated to prevent horses overheating but provide protection against insects biting. Consideration of the type of field is important, boggy lower level ground with stagnant water is most likely to attract breeding midges so horses with known problems should be fenced off from such areas, or if appropriate drainage be considered. Washing out water troughs regularly is advised, as is keeping the horse away from any muck heaps and if possible from bordering with cattle. Ideally a field should be at least half a mile away from any possible breeding habitats. If a horse is especially badly affected in one field it may be worth considering moving them as sometimes they are only particularly sensitive to one species of midge. If moving them completely, looking for somewhere with higher dry ground that often has a breeze is probably sensible.

In terms of treatment once damage has occurred, the aims are to reduce the inflammation and itching. Numerous topical products are available, and some people advocate also adding micronized linseed or linseed oil to the diet (you have to be careful with straight linseed meal) as it supposedly improves the skins condition and natural defences. Steroid injections are very good at helping ease the symptoms but can have serious health implications especially if used repeatedly. Anti-histamines may also be beneficial to some animals. Vaccines have been trialled over the last few years alongside capsules that can be added to the feed with varying success, your own vet will be able to provide the latest advice and give you guidance as to which treatment options would be most suitable for your pony and its environment. As already stated, prevention of exposure to biting flies and midges is really the key factor in managing this frustrating condition.