Itchy and Scratchy

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

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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9 thoughts on “Itchy and Scratchy”

  1. Great Article! My horse gets watery eyes in the summer, could that be an allergy as well? He is field boarded so I don’t think dust would be an issue and he wears a fly mask all the time. My sister suggested some eye drops but I am just not sure about that.

  2. Summer pasture syndrome causes watery eyes and runny noses in horses, often from fungus and mold spores plus dust and pollen. My horse had watery eyes Summer 2011 that caused him to rub a corneal ulcer that turned into an abscess and almost a lost eye. After $7,000 in treatments and 24 x 7 care, my horse susrvived with two eyes. When the allergies started again Spring 2012(June, like clockwork), I treated him with triple doses of Choice of Champions Lung Aid. It knocked out the symptoms! The dose was reduce to a double dose the second week, and then the normal dose the third week. I keep my horse on this product year-round because he has allergies & it works for me!! You might give Lung Aid a try.

  3. Several horses have allergies to cedar, bermuda, cedar/oak combinations, rye grass etc. common in West Texas. Our vet did a battery of tests (not real expensive) to determine which allergies our horse had and ordered a series of allergy shots (just like humans). The initial shot series to gradually work towards a monthly shot was a bit more expensive but once we were down to a shot a month, the cost was minimal and the symptoms of watery eyes etc., that made my horse miserable & cranky were very manageable. When exposed to a high concentration of oak & cedar, the symptons increased. But when moved out of the area and sold to East Texas the new owners were able to eliminate the shots altogether.

  4. HI I have a new horse to the barn this year a 10 year old Arabian Stallion. He started getting somting like scratches on his lower legs from the corenet to the ancle and all around to the front of the leg just where he has white lges. It is only on his front legs and only where he is white the one leg is worse than the other because he has more white on it. The vet said it was an reaction to somthing in the hay but he was not sure as the old hay was all gone and we had just gotten in a new load of hay. We feed alfalfa grass mis and a sudan grass. none of the other 10 horses have had any reaction and this is the same hay I was feeding sence the new horses arrived about 3 months ago. He is on a stroid now and we are putting a cortizone cream on his legs and keeping them rapped in the day as we were told he has a senceitivity to the light on his legs. If any one has seen this before or has any ideas please let me know at

  5. I own a second horse in 15 years that suffers from “Sweet Itch.” There’s nothing sweet about it. They scratch out their manes, rub out their tails, bend gates trying to scratch their necks and chests, collapse buckets trying to get to unreachable spots, and have sores and hairless spots all over them. Nothing really helps (though I’ve not tried the shots yet). I keep him (them) stalled, add garlic and vinegar to their feed/water, and use fly spray. Summer is totally miserable, and one day left out will return a horse missing all its mane hairs! Ugh!!

    Both horses were grey, I wonder if that is a common factor with this type of allergy? Are the shots expensive and how often do they take them?

  6. Its hard to figure out what the cause is, and what to do about it.
    Two years ago I could hardly put my horse into work, she could get no breath: she turned out to be allergic for molddust (in straw or dry hay) all of the sudden.
    This summer, she started to get itchy all over, getting bumps between the front legs and on hind legs. Scratching like crazy. But getting better: teatree shampoo, permithin spray (which you hardly get here in Europe for horses) and cortico creme. Turns out to be a reaction to normal flies, not midges I thought of but just the regular flies.
    About sweet itch: garlic will not help, putting a good blanket against midgebites like Rambo Sweet Itch Hoody will. And provide a brush for rubbing, so the wont use poles – they will rub anyway but using good brushes like the ones for cows will keep the skin whole.

  7. I have a 27 year old horse and he developed severe sweet itch and I use Puur Culico en Puur Allergie (both dops). It’s Dutch (I live in he Netherlands) and that is really working. It is homeopatic medicine. Maybe it is possible to order is. You can buy it at Dochorse and De Paardendrogist. You have to give the drops from March to November.

  8. I’m in Australia and have five year old QH mare who breaks out in golf ball size lumps from her nose to her her hind feet. We have tried to isolate the cause but with little success except cortisone shots and anti-histamine . Just finished both blood tests and skin tests and now waiting for vaccine to be made. Her highest allergy was to Curly Dock, American Cockroach and Moth. Moving to another part of country is out of the question. What nightmare as her face and airways swell hence gasping.

  9. My 12 year old TWH gelding has suffered from sweet itch for the last 6 years, from late spring to mid fall. We have twice moved him from environments which were wet and muddy and great for midges to dryer and higher and finally we moved our entire lives. We bought a house on a hill with almost constant wind and he lives outside 24/7 though we have plans for a barn. In the worst years/places we had to cloth him head to heel and about the only blankets that worked for us were expensive imported ones from the UK. We also used antihistamines twice daily and cortosone tablets spring to fall. This year he lives outside without blankets or masks, except for regular face flies, and to date (mid-August) have only once had to resort to a cortosone shot which our vet furnished to me and taught me to administer. He still suffers far more than my wife’s TWH gelding but at least he has a life and we feel we do to once again. Sweet itch is the worst! Sandy

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