Itch, scratch, itch…

Horse & Hound|July 02, 2020

Itch, scratch, itch…
Breaking the cycle of persistent irritation is the key to coping with summer skin problems, explains Karen Coumbe MRCVS
Karen Coumbe MRCVS

THE skin is the body’s largest organ, serving as a protective wrapping against the elements. It quickly becomes obvious when something goes wrong with this outer layer – especially in these warmer months, when a combination of sunshine and insects can worsen skin irritations.

Itchiness, properly termed pruritus, is more than merely a cosmetic issue. The discomfort can irritate a horse to the point that he loses weight, and in severe cases, it can even be confused with colic. A skin problem can become a serious welfare matter since an itch is actually a modified form of pain.

We all know how irritating an itch can be. The unpleasant sensation leads a horse to bite, scratch, or chafe his skin, which may be rubbed raw. In desperation, he may resort to finding a fence post or similar for relief.

For long-standing or recurrent itchiness, try to establish the reason rather than just disguising the signs with antihistamines, which rarely work well on their own, or steroids, which are effective but can have side effects.

It is far better to work with your vet to identify a cause so that more specific and focused treatment can be selected where available. Giving your vet detailed information about your horse’s history and current lifestyle will often provide vital clues.


THE most common causes of equine pruritus are parasites, such as lice and mites, which tend to be a worry in winter, and allergic reactions that are more commonly seen in summer.

Sweet itch is a classic summer skin problem; it is rarely encountered when temperatures drop below around 4°C and the biting midges stop flying. Reported to affect more than 5% of the UK’s equine population, and more often ponies and heavy breeds, the condition is an insect bite hypersensitivity caused by an allergy to irritants in midge saliva.

Typical signs include mild to severe itching and rubbing, usually along the mane, back, and tail. Areas of sore, open, or broken skin may bleed and the resulting bald patches can appear ugly and grey due to permanent hair loss and skin damage.


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July 02, 2020