Horse Health

Itchy and Scratchy

August 16, 2012

Equine allergies are nothing to sneeze at. Learn how to manage this horse health issue.

Allergies can make a horse miserable, but they are manageable. Journal photo.

From America's Horse

For horse lovers, summertime is a great time to ride and enjoy your horses. Unfortunately, summertime can also mean skirmishes with all sorts of health issues for your horse, such as pasture injuries, fly troubles and even equine allergies.

Dr. Anthony Yu, a veterinarian at Ontario’s University of Guelph who specializes in dermatology, says that insect bite sensitivity is one of the most common allergies our equine friends suffer from, and Quarter Horses are among the breeds of horses predisposed to hypersensitivity. Midges, also known as gnats or no-see-ums, are often the primary culprit and manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Sores along the horse’s midline, as well as the spring to fall timeline, are the primary indicators of midge sensitivity. Midges, tiny as they are, have the muscle to turn a normally laid-back horse into a cranky, miserable mess.

When battling midges, Dr. Yu recommends that horse owners take the following steps:

  • Use a fly spray with a high percentage of permethrin
  • Dress your horse in a fly sheet with a belly band during turnout
  • Discuss an aggressive systemic steroid treatment with your veterinarian

Dr. Yu also recommends keeping your horse in his stall with a box fan during the dusk and dawn hours, when midges tend to be the most active. The constant air flow generated by the box fan can keep gnats from landing on the horse.

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Many horses have combination allergies – sensitivities to insects, food, drugs or allergens in their environment like dust, mold or pollen. Symptoms range from itching and hives to asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

To identify which triggers are setting a horse off, horses can undergo skin tests, or owners can simply try to reduce or avoid all allergens.

If you’re battling allergies with your horses, try a few of the following suggestions:

  • Move from the current environment. An example would be stabling a horse with pollen allergies or turning out a horse with dust or mold spore allergies. On the extreme, this might mean that a horse needs to live in a different part of the country, to get away from a certain type of insect or pollen.
  • Minimize dust exposure. In the stall, consider using rubber mats and low-dust bedding. In the feed, use pelleted rations or soaked feeds and wet down hay before feeding.
  • Control insects. Move horses away from standing water, manure piles, compost and cattle. Avoid dusk or dawn turnout. Use fly sheets and masks, box fans, time-release insecticides, fly wasps and fish in ponds to cut down the number of insects.
  • Use dietary trials to diagnose food hypersensitivity or intolerance. Switch to novel food ingredients, such as different hay from another region of the country, and simple grains such as oats. Stay on this regimen for four to eight weeks. Then, once allergy symptoms have dissipated, challenge with one new food ingredient every two weeks.
  • Consider other possible allergens, such as laundry detergent, vitamin supplements, wound ointments, etc. Eliminate all these “extras,” and add them back in one by one.
  • Shampoo your horse regularly, as that will wash off superficial allergens and rehydrate the skin, especially if cold water is used.

Depending on the severity of the horse’s condition, Dr. Yu says systemic treatments may be necessary. Using the analogy of a forest fire, several products can be used to prevent the fire from spreading, including fly sprays, antihistamines, antioxidants, essential fatty acids and coffee-like derivatives. There are several different types of product, and it takes some experimenting to find the right one for each horse. But once the fire has gone out of bounds, it is only corticosteroids that put out the inflammation, Dr. Yu says. And although steroids bring with them some health risks like laminitis, “it sometimes becomes a quality of life issue vs. risk issue.”

Vets have a number of options in their allergy arsenal, but “it depends on the patient, environmental allergen load, individual response and owner compliance,” Dr. Yu says. “All regimens need to be individually catered, based on these and other factors.”

The take home message is clear: Allergies are a manageable condition, provided that owners are willing to do what it takes.

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