Health & Wellness

Sweet Relief – Supporting Your Itchy Horse

Skin itch can be maddening, for horses and owners alike. Horses become uncomfortable to ride and impossible to rug, and lack of rest can lead to behavioural difficulties, the cumulation of which may severely hamper your progress with your horse's training and athletic endeavours.

The most common form of itch is Queensland Itch (sweet itch, summer itch, seasonal recurrent dermatitis), an allergic reaction to being bitten by Culicoides midges.  These midges' saliva contains protein molecules to which some horses hyper-react - releasing a stream of histamine and cytokines which cause the intensely itchy feeling your horse experiences.  Other less common causes of itching include allergy to feed ingredients, topical allergy to pasture grasses or pollens, pinworms, neck threadworms and summer sores (all parasitic infestations).  In the case of parasitic infestations, your veterinarian can diagnose these infestations and suggest an appropriate de-wormer.  It is worth seeking allergy testing for your horse to pinpoint the cause of your horse's itch, rule out feed and pasture issues, and remediate where possible.  In the case of Culicoides sensitvity, many people like to rug, which can create somewhat of a barrier for future attacks, however completely removing midges from your horse's external environment may be impossible, so you will need to work with your horse's internal environment, while providing relief and topical support to help your horse become as comfortable as possible.

First Aid for Itch Relief

In all cases it is beneficial to assist your horse with herbs that can ease the inflammatory response, which will reduce histamine and cytokine levels and therefore reduce itchiness and improve your horse's comfort. It may also benefit your horse to use a (natural) topical deterrent, antibacterial and skin-healing lotion while you improve your horse's internal environment. Synthetic steroidal creams and toxic chemical applications will likely do more harm than good in the long run, and shouldn't be necessary if you have access to natural treatment options.

Feeding Fundamentals

Evaluate your horse's feed for its content of typically pro-inflammatory ingredients - grains, especially wheat products (which includes bran, millrun and pollard), processed ingredients, preservatives, synthetic flavours or colours - these feed ingredients exacerbate inflammation and/or allergic responses, which will make your horse's itch so much worse. Wheat products, a major constituent of many processed, pelletised horse feeds, are also heavily contaminated with farming chemicals, which are known to cause DNA breakage and increase the incidence of gut and skin issues. Instead, favour feeds which support inflammation reduction, especially Omega-3 oil-rich foods, such as flax, and other minimally-processed, non-intensively farmed feeds.

Support your horse micro-nutrients which facilitate the production and maintenance of healthy, resilient skin and coat.  MacroMin provides an array of important skin-health micro-nutrients in a daily supplement blend, and without any potentially aggravating additives.  It also provides a helpful serving of certified organic, finely-milled rosehips fruit powder, and milled wholegrain flax. Research suggests that vitamin B1 and sulphur are deterrents to biting insects, as are adequate electrolyte salt levels, so it pays to have all these bases covered in your diet plan. Garlic is sometimes given to reduce a horse's palatability to biting insects. Supplementing with oily feeds (copra, sunflower, flax) will keep skin moisturised from the inside, for speedy tissue healing.

A Balanced Immune System

Consider your horse's immune system.  The issue in the case of sweet-itch is an imbalance more so than a deficit - your horse's immune system is working more than well enough - too well in fact - but it is targeting something (the midge saliva) which does not require or benefit from such an aggressive response.  One prominent cause of immune system dysfunction is a damaged gastrointestinal tract, or poor quality gastrointestinal environment.  Another cause is vaccinations, which contain strong adjuvants.  Adjuvants are substances which are used to cause a more aggressive response from the immune system toward whatever pathogen the vaccine contains. Unfortunately such an aggressive response can sometimes trigger immune dysfunction, including autoimmunity and hyper-reactivity. Protocol for healing the damage caused is lengthy, but usually includes detoxification and improvement of the gastrointestinal environment, both of which will likely also help with itch.  Consider supporting your horse with a gastrointestinal support blend like GastroZen.

Synthetic Corticosteroidal Treatments and Inflammation

If your horse is suffering from any kind of chronic inflammation it is advisable to look back through your horse's medication history for the use of any kind of synthetic corticosteroids - topical, injectable or oral. When horses are given synthetic corticosteroids, the horse's adrenal gland (a small gland which resides atop each kidney), by negative feedback mechanism, loses its capacity to produce its own corticosteroids, which moderate inflammatory responses.  Horses effectively become addicted to synthetic corticosteroids, so a cycle begins where your horse's condition will improve with chemical treatment but then become far worse afterward, necessitating further treatment, to fix outbreaks of inflammatory issues including skin itch.  Licorice root is one herb which can help restore adrenal balance following damage from synthetic corticosteroid administration.

Medicine Tree Nutritional Solutions

DermaZen itch support blend is formulated with a combination of botanicals which are traditionally used to address the symptoms and causes of allergic itch in horses - including inflammation, gastrointestinal environment, toxicity and adrenal insufficiency.  We recommend that you use it in unison with MacroMin and a natural, anti-inflammatory diet for the best possible results.

Article image (foal Itching) supplied with thanks by Greig Huggins Photography