Itching for a Cure - Andrea Busfield

Itching for a Cure - Andrea Busfield

If your horse suffers from sweet itch, there might be good news on the way … eventually.

According to The Horse Magazine, scientists are looking at a preventive vaccine against Culicoides hypersensitivity.

For those who don’t know – and be thankful if you’ve never had to look into this – sweet itch or Culicoides hypersensitivity is a seasonal skin condition triggered by the saliva of biting midges, called Culicoides.

Culicoides usually feed at night, live near water and with more than 1,000 species in the genus they tend to favour different parts of the horse. The most commonly affected areas are the mane and tail, the line down the centre of the belly, the legs, the face and the ears.

Horses that are sensitive to these midges usually develop one of two types of hypersensitivity: an immediate reaction bringing raised bumps; and a delayed reaction bring signs of itching up to 48 hours after the bite. Many horses have both. While antihistamines can work in the case of an immediate reaction, they don’t work for the delayed reaction.

As readers of this blog may know, my beautiful mare Mina suffers from sweet itch on her lower legs and, like the majority of horses that are sensitive to midges, she also happens to be overly sensitive to other things she can’t easily get away from in Cyprus, such as dust and sunlight.

Right now, there are custom-made vaccines available in the US that are able to re-educate the immune system so that, in time, it doesn’t overreact to life’s irritants, but off-the-shelf help isn’t quite with us yet.

However, according to THM, scientists are “working to replicate a purified Culicoides salivary antigen (a substance that induces an immune response in the body, especially the production of antibodies), which could potentially become available as a vaccine for commercial use.”

Clearly, this would be a game-changer for many horse owners like myself that have been driven nearly as crazy as our horses during sweet itch season. Over the years, I have tried everything to help Mina, covering her legs with all manner of lotions and tonics from neem oil to garlic powder to calamine lotion. I have tried to protect her limbs with leggings (yes, really), socks and even nappies. Of course, this was when she wouldn’t tolerate fly boots. Thankfully, she’s now older and she’s learned to deal with them and, more importantly, to keep them on.

Another handy tip is to invest in a quality repellent rather than an insecticide that reduces the insect burden, but doesn’t stop midges from landing. For horses, like my Mina, that have developed a sensitivity to chemicals, neem oil repellents are recommended.

As many fly sheets come impregnated with insect repellent, they are also a worthy investment, but they need to be used before sweet itch takes hold. And if your horse needs a fly mask, it’s important to keep it clean and dry to stop any secondary bacterial or fungal infections occurring.

Clearly, another must-have item in your sweet itch arsenal is the Aqueos antibacterial horse shampoo. This is a gentle shampoo that soothes itchy skin irritations, fungal conditions and rashes – and it has been a godsend for me because it’s pH neutral and I know Mina doesn’t react to anything in it.

Other than ensuring Mina’s legs are kept clean and covered during the day, I apply Vaseline once every two days and calamine lotion every week or so. It’s not an exact science, but it is an approach that seems to have worked over the past two years.

Other ways to help your horse, is to stable them at night, if possible, with fans and insect screens over doors. THM also recommends barn sprayers “emitting a permethrin spray at a 0.2%-0.5% concentration.”  As midges don’t breed in manure, pooper-scooping is not a necessity for sweet itch sufferers, but a clean stable is a clean stable and more desirable than a dirty one. Mosquito magnets are also recommended to attract and trap insects looking to feed on your horse. Omega fatty acids in supplement form have been shown to help manage skin conditions and atopic disease.

The main takeaway, however, is to not let sweet itch take hold. Prevention is key rather than reaction as it’s difficult to turn a horse around once they become susceptible. So, protect your horse’s skin with a good shampoo, a quality repellent and whatever barrier is needed to keep them a midge-free zone. And good luck!