What You Need To Know About Sweet Itch
Sweet itch is a condition affecting horses, and is the result of a bite from one of several species of midges or gnats. These tiny creatures, sometimes referred to as "no-see-ums" can be a nuisance at times for humans, but can causes real problems in horses.
Most horse owners are ever watchful to see whether their horses are being bothered by flies, especially during the summer months, and because of the threat of West Nile Virus, a potentially lethal disease spread by the mosquito, many horses are given an annual vaccination. As far as flies are concerned, be they horse flies or common stable flies, various sprays and ointments, or fly masks and blankets, are often employed to keep horses from undue suffering.
The midge is somewhat of a special case though, and it is a little amazing that such a small creature can cause such a problem with horses. Similar to the mosquito, the male midge contents it self with feeding on the nectar of plants. The female does as well, but the female requires a supply of blood in order to lay eggs, and a horse represents a nice source of blood, though most any mammal would do.
Sweet itch comes into the picture when the female midge draws blood from the horse. The horse doesn't simply suffer a bite that may itch, such as a fly or flea might produce, but reacts to the midge's saliva, which acts as an allergen. Sweet itch is therefore not merely a temporary inflammation of the skin, but is an allergic reaction which can have long term consequences. Once a horse suffers an allergic reaction to a midge bite, it will always suffer that reaction from a midge bite, and the symptoms can often be quite severe and uncomfortable for the horse.
Not Curable, But Treatable - Exactly what the cause is behind the saliva causing and allergic reaction and sweet itch is not known. Consequently a cure for sweet itch is not known either, thought the condition fortunately is treatable, and to a degree, preventable.
Preventing Sweet Itch - There are a number of ways to prevent sweet itch, and these are often the same methods used to prevent or control problems caused by other insects. Horse blankets are one means of protection, as are various lotions, including a variety of menthol products which tend to keep the midges at bay. Clothes dryer sheets, rubbed over the horse's skin is another preventive measure, and some horse owners have indicated that feeding horses garlic is effective, as the garlic smell in the horse's sweat will repel insects. Another means of prevention is simply to move horses to areas where midges are unlikely to congregate. The midges responsible for sweet itch usually prefer cool, damp locations, such as swampy areas. They do not like strong sunlight, nor do they care for hot, dry, or windy conditions. A horse pastured in a dry area is an unlikely candidate for sweet itch, even if midges are not far off. Midges as a rule do not travel far, so a swampy area a quarter mile from a horse's pasture is not apt to pose a problem.
Sweet itch is not widespread in the United States at the present time, though cases of it have occurred, especially in several parts of Southern California. The problem is more severe in the United Kingdom, and quite serious in parts of Australia. Be on the lookout for a horse trying to scratch itself to relieve itching, or exhibiting sore spots or patches of rough skin or hair loss, are these are signs that sweet itch may be present.