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The Itchy Horse Can Drive You Crazy
Out-of-control scratching can lead to
bigger problems and serious health issues.
ne of the most infuriating,
frustrating issues is a horse
with skin problems. Thankfully, most horses don’t have sensitive skin or allergies. But for the
few unlucky ones that do, owners
can be brought to tears, since the
problem never really seems to go
Itchiness (also called “pruritus”)
can occur from a variety of causes
and can start at any time during a
horse’s life. We’ll take you through
some of the common causes, and
explain what you can do to mitigate
the problem.
patches all over their body while
others will repeatedly break out
in hives. Regardless, these horses
are usually very sensitive to the
touch. Some of them itch so much
it almost hurts. They may even
want you to itch them to a point but
then become stand-offish if you are
Although we don’t commonly
think of it, skin is a vital organ,
as are the liver, kidneys, heart
and lungs. If any of these became
inflamed, we’d definitely sit up and
take notice. Yet with skin, some of
us more or less give up when we see
lackluster results despite our strong
efforts. Well, don’t give up!
Help! My Horse Itched His
Tail Out! We’ve all seen it, heard
about it, or experienced it: a horse
scratching out his mane or tail.
Even though these are the most
common presenting complaints
when it comes to itchy skin, several
other behaviors and hair-loss patterns are also reported.
Commonly, horses will experience
hair loss (aka alopecia) on their
underbelly and ventral midline.
Geldings may have firm, incredibly
itchy sheaths with dry skin. Some
horses will itch out hair on their
face or on their haunches.
In rare circumstances, mares can
Midline dermatitis, aka sweet itch, is
caused by tiny bugs called “no-see-ums.”
present with a mammary gland
infection (mastitis) which is caused
when they “dog sit” on the ground
and rub their bellies in the dirt.
Dirt gets into their teat, which in
turn causes an infection. But even
mares with just dirty udders can
become master tail-itchers. Keeping
your horse’s sheath or udder clean
is step one in these cases.
Some horses will lose hair in
Steroids: A Double-Edged Sword
When vets look at a skin condition, one of the biggest questions that
they ask themselves is, “Should I give this horse corticosteroids?” Corticosteroids are a class of anti-inflammatory medication that can have
wonderful positive effect in horses. They can make creaky, painful
joints move again and they can make red hot skin that is on fire happy
in a matter of hours. But they are not without another edge.
Corticosteroids can be risky in horses with bad gastric ulcers, a history of metabolic issues (insulin resistance, Cushing’s disease), or other
organ problems. Inform your vet about relevant medical history or
conditions in your horse before he administers a treatment or therapy.
Also, doing routine blood testing for equine metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance) and Cushing’s disease (in older horses) is valuable.
Take It Seriously. Horses that
itch constantly can have serious
physiologic consequences. Obviously the skin itself can be damaged by constant scratching. Horses will often rub so vigorously that
they will macerate their skin. These
cuts and scrapes are painful and
can become infected. After many
repeated insults, skin can actually
become permanently thickened
and scaly. This process is called
“lichenification” and is irreversible
in some cases.
Beyond the skin itself, pruritus
can result in other physiologic
problems. In some horses, itching
is so intense that the horse can’t
sleep. After prolonged stretches
(usually weeks to months) with no
significant sleep, it starts to show.
Horses will become fatigued and
can actually “zone out” and nearly
fall over before they catch themselves. This behavior is not benign,
since we know that horses must
sleep in order to maintain proper
brain function. Some experts
postulate that the relentless itching
irritates horses to the point where
they develop gastric ulcers. So
clearly, horses that itch terribly can
truly be suffering.
Article from Horse Journal Online - www. - Copyright ©2014
Common Causes. There are
several possibilities when it comes
to causes of pruritus in horses. But
by far and away, biting insects are
the most common cause. Owners
often report that since they don’t
see any insects they doubt this as a
cause. The problem is that most of
these bugs are difficult to see with
the naked eye.
Not all horses are sensitive to insect bites, just like not all dogs are
sensitive to flea bites. But if your
horse is one of the unlucky that is
allergic to the saliva of a certain
insect, life can be difficult.
These horses will itch on any object to try to find relief, even to the
point of breaking boards and bending no-climb wire because they sit
on the fence while rubbing their
tails. Horses may even kick at their
own underbellies in an attempt to
stop the tingling.
Horses have little sense of self-
preservation when they itch, and
as a result many times skin can become deeply abraded and in some
instances, will have foreign objects
like wood splinters embedded.
If you’re able to identify what type
of insect is causing your horse to
have skin reactions, you may increase your chances of controlling
the problem. However, they may be
sensitive to several types of biting
insects, making it more difficult.
Although none of them are easy
to ward off, we’ve included in our
chart products we think work best.
(See charts on page 4.)
Insects And Barn Management. Use fly masks with ears (see
May 2012 for our favorite products
at If you
have trouble keeping your horse’s
mask on in pasture because of
pesky pasture-pals, cut the Velcro
closure to match the hook portion
exactly so there’s nothing for the other horses
to grab and pull. Many
horses think this is a fine
Be sure you fit the
mask’s closure snugly
(but not choking tight)
with just enough give in
the elastic for comfort.
This will decrease the
chance of your horse
being able to rub it off.
If your routinely turn
your horse out in a halter
(because of barn rules or
another necessity), only
Hives require immediate veterinary attention
use a breakaway hal(pollen may be the cause).
ter and place that over
the fly mask for added
Horses can wear a mask
at night if they are in a
safe, enclosed, secure
and familiar setting.
Nose and ear flaps protect from sunburn and
go a long way to relieving irritation by insects.
While the lighter mesh
fly masks are easier for
horses to see through,
they’re not as durable
and a rubbing horse will
The causes for an itchy tail may vary, but the result is
destroy them in no time
always ugly.
Fly sheets with tail flaps, neck
sleeves and, especially, wide belly
bands increase protection over the
common areas where flies bite.
Some fly sheets are impregnated
with pyrethrins to repel insects; it’s
not perfect, but it helps. Fly sheets
can stay on the horse 24/7 (since
some insects are still active even in
the late evening), but always take
it off and replace it daily to inspect
the horse’s coat for irritations. Most
fly sheets can be washed on the
wash rack with a hose and some
laundry detergent.
Fans in stabling areas can help
inhibit flies from landing on and
biting your horse in the stall (see
page 13).
We love fly parasites! They’re the
tiny wasps that live in the manure
pile and feed on fly larvae and
can substantially reduce your fly
population. Getting your neighbors
to use them, too, is a big plus since
you need a wide radius around your
property to be depopulated in order
to see the maximum benefit. These
wasps do not sting or bite people, so
don’t worry! (See HJ June 2010.)
Of course, you know to manage
stagnant/standing water by dumping and cleaning troughs periodically or if troughs are too large, use
mosquito fish or mosquito rings.
Always dump out standing water
from buckets, tires, feed bins where
it accumulates.
Plant Allergens. As if insects
weren’t enough to make our horses’
skin crawl, some horses can have
environmental allergies (see charts
page 5). Horses can get instant,
severe contact hypersensitivity
reactions when various agents from
plants come into contact with their
sensitive skin.
For most plant-related hypersensitivities, removing either the plant
from the horse’s environment or the
horse from the plant’s environment
is best. Of course, if you live in
New York and your horse is allergic to Maple trees, or if you are in
California and Oak trees don’t jive,
well, you’ve got quite a problem.
Bottom Line. The fact is, controlling allergic reactions is no
Article from Horse Journal Online - www. - Copyright ©2014
Best Choices for Insect-Related Treatment and Prevention
Treatment /
HJ Best Choices
Fly Sprays
• Apply liberally all over horse, especially to affected areas.
• Use a brush, mitt or cloth to really work the fly spray into the coat.
• Some fly sprays tout a 14-day spectrum of effectiveness, but we recommend spraying EVERY
DAY during heavy fly seasons.
• Apply at dawn and/or dusk since these are the times when insects are the most busy.
Endure Sweat Resistant (www., 800-234-2269);
UltraShield EX (,
Fly Repellent
• Apply daily to affected areas (usually on the ventral midline/ underbelly, sheath, tail head, and
along the backbone.
• You may have to wipe off the previous day’s application to start with a clean slate.
• Mix a little over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream and/or aloe vera gel in with the fly
repellent ointment to help soothe the skin.
• Don’t be afraid to dump a little fly spray into the ointment and mix it up before applying it.
SWAT (, 800-2342269); War Paint (by ChemTech;
contact your local dealer); Vicks
VapoRub, Campho-Phenique,
and Avon Skin So Soft (available at
human-product stores).
Soothing Barrier
• Stop using if product further irritates the skin.
• Spot bathe the area with a gentle shampoo like Corona, Ivory soap or Orvus, before applying
to remove secretions and dirt.
• These products provide healing and a barrier but aren’t highly repellent.
Calm Coat (, 888692-0021); Shapley’s M-T-G (www., 800-982-2017); C4G
Ointment (, 800248-0330); Su-Per Healing Ointment
(, 888-4722825).
Spot On Insect
• Owners report that when pyrethrin spot-on is applied to the legs and back, it can ward off
ticks for up to two weeks. (We’ve found it less effective on flies.)
• Some horses get a tingling sensation when the spot-on is applied and foot stomping can
occur as a result.
• Even though the directions say to apply once monthly, it has been applied by many on a
twice monthly basis.
Equi-Spot Spot-on Fly Control For
Horses (, 800234-2269); Celebration Spot On
or Freedom 45 for Horses (www.
The Prime Suspects for Insect-Related Itching
Culicoides (midges)
A tiny biting fly called Culicoides species (otherwise known as the midge) that conducts most of its business at dawn and dusk. These
biting flies are so small that we cannot see them, hence their nickname, “no-see-ums.” Culicoides cause large areas of hair loss and
usually focus on the mane, tail head, and the ventrum of the horse including the sheath in geldings. Contrary to popular belief, these
little flies can plague a horse all year round in most parts of the country. No solitary bite area can be seen, rather, there are large
connected areas of intense skin hypersensitivity, lichenification, scales/scabs, and sores. The itchiness caused by these little devils is so
intense that it has been famed “Sweet Itch” to describe the addictive sensation that the horse gets when the lesions are itched.
Mites (chiggers)
These crawling insects are very small and cause bumps and welts on the pasterns, fetlocks, and chin area (since they hang out in the
grass and wait to latch onto the horse as it grazes by). The lesions are telltale as they usually have a gooey center with a sticky, yellow
crust that is made from the horse’s serum. These lesions can be itchy and irritating and owners report that within the span of a day
their horse’s legs and head can be covered.
Buffalo Gnats (aka
Black Flies)
Buffalo Gnats are also a tiny fly that really go after a horse’s ears and can actually cause a permanent plaque to form where they have
fed inside the ear. You may see horses walking around with white lesions inside their ears—those are a sign that gnats have been at
work. They are blood suckers and their bites are painful, but later the site is intensely pruritic.
Horn Flies
These little black flies are famous for settling in mini-swarms on the back and withers. They also spend a lot of time on the ventral
midline. Usually a common pest of cattle, they usually will not be abundant on horses unless cattle are nearby. They chew on skin and
suck blood until the horse has huge callous-like plaques on their feeding sites. These plaques are very itchy and horses will lean or
stretch to get at them. If you are lucky enough to get the lesion to heal, the hair usually grows back white. These flies are also famous
for transmitting pigeon fever because of a bacteria that they can carry on their mouthpiece.
Mosquitoes can cause generalized skin irritation since they are fairly indiscriminate as to where they choose to set down and drill.
Also blood suckers, these pests can cause itchy welts. In addition, they can infect horses with diseases such as Eastern or Western
encephalitis, West Nile virus and equine infectious anemia.
Horse Flies
These behemoth flies can’t be missed. They have a bite that hurts and usually draws blood. They often attack the chest and back but
are known to try to take a bite just about anywhere. In their aftermath they leave behind itchy welts.
Ticks are a crawling insect that often are difficult to see. They can cause itchy welts with hair loss and a centralized scab. Ticks can carry
disease such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever as well as Anaplasmosis (Erlichiosis). Also, out of all insects, they seem
to be the hardest to actually repel (see Lyme disease on page 12).
Both biting and chewing lice can infest horses. They lay their eggs all over the horse, which then hatch into nymphs that also feed on
skin and blood. Horses with lice infestations often are pruritic all over their body and have eggs that look like rice deposited onto the
hair). Although lice infestations can be cleared up within 1 to 2 weeks after treatment, the skin can still itch for several months and in
many cases takes a long time to become healthy again.
Article from Horse Journal Online - www. - Copyright ©2014
Biting and chewing lice can infest your
horse, laying eggs everywhere.
picnic. It’s critical that you know
exactly what you’re dealing with.
If you try one of our suggestions
and you see no improvement in
your horse’s skin within three days,
contact your veterinarian. If you
see worsening, call your vet immediately. The worse and larger the
area becomes and the longer it goes
uncontrolled, the more time it will
take for you to get it under control
Control insects with a fly mask that covers the ears and nose, if necessary.
and the longer your horse will suffer needlessly.
Next month, we’ll talk about
chemical and infectious causes,
plus treatments.
Article by Contributing Veterinary
Editor Grant Miller, DVM.
Typical Environmental Allergens
If your horse has seasonal hives or skin sensitivity, even if the season is fall or winter, the cause may be pollen. If the condition is
repeatable and predictable and lasts for weeks to months, you may want to research the surrounding trees and plants to see if they
happen to be pollenating at that time. If they are, they should be on your list of culprits.
Unlike pollen, horses that are allergic to stable dust (which includes various danders from other animals like cats) show skin
hypersensitivity all year round. It is extremely difficult to control this contact allergy, since even the fanciest barns have dust. In
many cases, the horse is reacting to dust that comes from the bedding, and so changing shavings may help solve the issue.
Plant contact (weeds/
Weed and grasses will pollenate just like trees will, and so they should also be considered if your horse has a seasonal skin issue.
However, sometimes they can irritate a horse all year round.
Some horses experience skin hypersensitivity during the colder, damper times of the year. Mold spores can cause intense
hypersensitivity reactions that result in itchy hives. Sources of mold include damp stalls and wet environments such as wooded
areas that are soaked in rain or morning dew.
Environmental Allergies Treatment And Prevention
Treatment /
HJ Recommendations
Aloe Vera Gel
• This soothing gel can be very helpful for dry, cracked and irritate skin.
• It can be applied daily to affected areas.
• It is safe for use and horses can even lick it/ swallow it and not get sick.
Lily of The Desert Whole Leaf Aloe Gel
Stockton Aloe1 (, 866691-0201)
Generic clear pure aloe
• While costly, vacuums can help remove contact/ topical allergens that bother your horses skin.
• Brushes can spread allergens around on the horse and also irritate skin worse through
repeated use in the same area.
• Gentle vacuuming removes allergens and does not irritate skin.
• Horses will need to be trained to tolerate the vacuum.
• Many people just use a standard canister vacuum cleaner designed for household use, or a
shop vac.
Eureka Mighty Mite Canister Vacuum
Vacmaster VBV1210 NA 12 Gallon 5
Horsepower Vacuum Cleaner
Electro-Groom (uber-expensive! But boy
it works!)
Article from Horse Journal Online - www. - Copyright ©2014
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