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Sweet Itch

Author: Lucy Carmichael BVSc MRCVS

We are all breathing a big sigh of relief that spring is on its way. Sunshine, blue skies and longer, lighter evenings sound almost too good to be true. However, it’s important to remember that we may need to adjust our horse’s management as the temperatures rise. This includes considering how we will deal with the creepy crawlies that harass us and our equestrian companions.

Whilst we are all too likely to have encountered reactions to ticks, fly bites, bee and wasp stings, and are often adept at managing these situations, there is one particularly frustrating, and often very severe allergic skin reaction that we may struggle with. This issue is caused by the saliva of the female Culicoides midge and is known as ‘sweet itch’, or ‘summer seasonal recurrent dermatitis’ (SSRD). Sweet itch is recognisable and differs from other allergic skin disease as it causes horses to become itchy, predominantly over the neck, back and tail. Those that are most severely affected may rub the skin completely raw.

Preventing sweet itch can be very difficult, as it involves minimising exposure to the midges by:

  • Using specialist rugs which cover the horse from poll to tail. This will ideally prevent the midges from accessing the skin. Bear in mind that particularly sensitive horses will need to wear these rugs in the stable, as well as out in the field

  • Keeping your horse inside during the times when midges are most active, this is predominantly during dawn and dusk

  • Midges thrive in areas of where there is decomposing material- for example in woodlands and near water. They also benefit from these more covered areas as they are very poor fliers. Ensuring turnout in dry, open areas with a good breeze will help to reduce exposure

  • Using a good fly repellent. There are so many on the market, and some are more effective than others!

A vaccine is now available which has had excellent outcomes It involves an initial injection, and a booster jab two weeks later. To have maximum efficacy, the injection should be given BEFORE the sweet itch season begins, so ideally in March. If you have an itchy horse or pony that you feel would benefit, please contact your vet for more details.


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