Sunday, August 7, 2011

Sweet Itch

Cowboy's story just gets more and more complicated. For the last week, since his severe HSS episode, he has wanted to be in his stall. I'd let him out at night, sometimes force him out against his will, but by morning with the early sun, the head shaking would have already resumed. (This was suspicious to me since the sun had only been out for an hour or less).

Yesterday I went out and he was antsy, for the first time, to get OUT of his stall. I switched out his fly mask for a much thicker one and figured I'd give him a try. Off he went! He ran out of there as happy as I'd seen him in a LONG time.

My husband and I set out on the deck and watched him all evening. And what did we see? Intense belly rubbing. I'd seen it a couple times before during the week, but this was just crazy belly itching...dragging his belly along the ground. Sweet itch?

Let's see, it is caused by an allergy to the saliva of Culicoides midges (small flies)...we have a lot of flies in the pasture where the neighbor's huge herd lives, but few in the barn because of fly predators we release...Cowboy prefers the barn. I have seen lots of "small flies" on the horses lately. CHECK. Sweet itch is sometimes brought on by stressful injuries, Cowboy's arthritis has been getting worse. CHECK. Sweet itch can cause head shaking. CHECK. Sweet itch can be considered a debilitating condition that makes a horse unsound. CHECK. Sweet itch can change the personality of your horse. CHECK. The first signs of Sweet Itch usually show up in Autumn, Cowboy's started last fall. Check. The flies are at their worst in early morning and dusk, Cowboy was head-tossing in the early mornings. Check.

Questions I have: Why wasn't there belly rubbing before this? Now that I think of it, there was some tail rubbing. Was that sweet itch? And, why was he striking at his face? Why did sun seem to aggravate it? Were the flies worse on the day he had the incident? There was a lot of standing water at that time because of an malfunctioned automatic waterer. I guess Culicoides breed in standing water.

The mystery is definitely deepening, but each day yields more information. There are still a couple things that are not entirely explained by this so I'll continue to look for answers. Until I know, I'm not taking Cowboy out on the trails. We'll be riding around here and I'll be finishing the training of my fillies. My friends are going to come by and "spot" me (be around to jump in and help if needed).

Here are some suggestions I found for helping Sweet Itch.

--Apply fly spray every day or throughout the day. Regular fly spray may not be affective so look for DEET in the ingredients. I'm putting OFF on my finger and rubbing it into the ear as they'll allow me to.
-Use fly sheets that tie around the belly.
-Add cider vinegar to the horse's feed.
-Apply small amounts of Avon's Skin So Soft bath oil to the most vulnerable areas.
-Apply menthol products, such as Vick's VapoRub or a cheaper generic version, to susceptible areas.
-Feed the horse about 2 tablespoons of garlic powder two times a day to make his sweat smell garlicky and repel the flies.
-Braid Bounce or another brand of scented dryer sheets into the horse's mane and tail, and rub them over the horse.
--Apply SWAT to the belly.
--Keep the barn area dry and as free from flies as you possibly can.

Look at these's Beautiful three years ago. I posted about it. Click here. I think, looking back at the stress she was under being wild and in a new home, it was a case of sweet itch. She hasn't shown signs of it since then.


  1. Mine have been driven crazy by these gnats too, Linda--thankfully nobody has developed head-shaking, but they do suffer.

    When things get really bad, my mares will resort to tail-rubbing--they can't really get to their udders, so they press against fencing, the post in the barn, feed bin, etc. and they wind up rubbing the hair off.

    I use Endure flyspray and hit them on the bellies every couple of days, but it can be hard to get the spray into the crevices, so I'll use Swat in their ears and navels. I've noticed that oddly enough the gnats don't seem to "see" them as well when they're standing in the shelter (even though it's not screened and open on one side), which is interesting.

    I've tried Bag Balm, too, but I don't think that lasts long (especially in the heat). A friend of mine out here will use Desitin in horse ears because it's cheaper than Swat and the gnats don't like that either.

    I asked the vet about controlling the dang gnats--I have bats, nighthawks, and swallows for the mosquitoes (and I throw Bt in the ditch for mosquito larvae) but I don't know what eats these horrible Culicoides things. Her suggestion was: "Well, you could move." We have standing water around thanks to irrigation that I can't do much about. I've read you don't even need standing water--if you have wet soil, they can breed there too.

    One suggestion I've heard is to rinse your horse's sheath/back legs off every day, since urine splashes make horses attractive to gnats. I'm guessing that's where the Bounce suggestion comes in--anything to help mask the "horse" odor. I've also heard of people spraying their horses every day with vinegar for the same reason.

    I have wondered if it's possible to use an antihistamine cream on a horse--they do make Benadryl cream now, and you might be able to avoid the systemic affects of an oral antihistamine that way.

    What we need is some kind of sticky paste that won't melt off in the heat like an ointment will--something that's got diatomaceous earth or other grit it that would stick to these hairless belly and ear areas.

    I used to notice a dramatic (sometimes almost scary) personality change in my kids when they were coming down with a cold, and I have no trouble seeing where a spike in histamine levels due to allergies could cause personality changes in a horse.

  2. Fetlock--thank you for all that information--you're a treasure trove. Our place is usually dry as a bone except in spring and fall, so I have never dealt with this before. Cowboy's head shaking was in wet, treed, areas away from the house--out on the trail...until last week.

    This morning, Old Red was doing the vertical head tossing out there. Armed with the new information I inspected his ears and YES there were scabby signs of flies there. (Cowboy doesn't have any of that.) Red is very sensitive around his ears, so had to carefully apply OFF around them and then I put a mask with ears on him. My husband went out this morning and used the tractor to cover any wet dirt with dry dirt.

  3. I should say, his first case of head shaking was in an open field coming out of the trees. Same spot every time....end of last summer...going into fall.

  4. Thank you for all of this information. I'd not heard of HSS or Sweet Itch before. Strange reaction on Beautiful's mane; that looks like it would be very uncomfortable. My goodness a lot of things can ail a horse. I'm sorry Cowboy is having a tough time.

  5. It's so hard to diagnose something when there could be multiple causes! Thanks for doing such a thorough job of examining each cause! I'm following along. The gnats have been absolutely awful at our house this year too. Worse than I have EVER seen them! They drove us crazy all day long in our yard. They even were biting Wren in her ears, bothering the turkeys, and the horses and cows. Thankfully, their time seems to have passed and the last month has been pretty gnat-free. Our gnats were the buffalo gnat variety (genus Simulium, also called black flies). I'm SO glad they are gone now!

  6. OUAE--it (Beautiful's issue) did seem weird at the time and I looked and asked for answers, but didn't find any. She was scared to death and in a new environment--all possibilities for Sweet Itch.

    Kara--There probably are several things going on with Cowboy. I'm going to try to make his environment as favorable for him as possible. He was out grazing all day today and did very well. There still was some belly itching going on, but that may take a week or so to go away. He's back to his old sweet self as of today, but I'm ready for anything at this point. We'll see.

  7. Kara--I think our gnats may be black flies, too. I have some investigating to do. Maybe someone from around here knows? ....

  8. What a rotten situation! Hope you can keep the gnats off.

    Soxy gets a terrible itchy spot on her belly every year. I sprayed it with Catron yesterday. That stuff actually does last at least several days and is made to go straight on a wound, keeps bugs off even bloody, nasty drainage sites. You might look into it. It's an aerosol so the noise can bother them, and it sprays on like a foam so I'm not sure how it would work for full body treatment, but it does have instructions for that on the PDF I just read.

    This link has info and a link to a PDF with even more detailed instructions/information:

    I have read about people putting listerine mixed with baby oil on itchy tails. Kills germs and probably feels nice and cool.

    If they are black flies, that is doubly scary because they spread disease. I guess any biting bug can probably do that though...

  9. Geez, poor boy. You could also try feeding him garlic. Many people say that works to keep the flies off.

  10. Linda, I start an apple-vinegar dousing for their hay as soon as the small black flies appear in spring; only about 1 pint (1 c. vinegar and fill container with water) and just pour it over the hay. It has really helped keep the flies away from their eyes and noses. The horses learned to like it pretty quickly and look for me to pour it on.

    Only Estes, a bay, is really bothered by the bites and SWAT has been a big help. I just rub it on the favorite bite spots once a day, and no more bites. Ranger, a grulla, gets a few bites and the grays get nothing. Go figure, but I think the horse's color has a lot to do with how much the flies "like" them. You've done a lot more research than me; good luck with Cowboy.

  11. I think you've got a good handle on how to help Cowboy, poor guy. It must be maddening for him. There are so many good things you've come up with to help surely one of the treatments will help. We've never dealt with this so I'm not sure I'd be any help with his problem.


Please feel welcome to join our discussion by telling us about your own thoughts and experiences.