Sweet Itch

Equine skin irritations can be caused by allergies, external parasites and even management practices.

 At some point, you may come across some sort of itchy skin issue. It is one of the hazards of being outside and exposed to bacteria, fungi and viral agents in the natural environment.

Skin has three main functions: protection, regulation and sensation. It is made up of a number of different layers. The epidermis is the outer most layer that provides a waterproof barrier. The dermis beneath, contains tough connective tissue, hair follicles and sweat glands. The deeper subcutaneous tissue is made of fat and connective tissue. Problems arise when there is damage to these layers, or if they have become weakened. If this occurs then secondary infection can occur.

Rain Scald & Ringworm

Elevated patches of hair can be associated with rain scald or ringworm. Rain scald is a bacterial skin infection caused by the spores of Dermatophilus congolensis, whereas ringworm is caused by a fungus. Rain scald is much more common in healthy horses and ringworm is more common in younger horses. Both can be contagious, especially ringworm so it is important that you wear gloves when touching the area. Fungal infections require medicated shampoo treatments whereas Hibiscrub can be used for rain scald areas.


If your horse is continually itchy on the mane and tail area then your horse may have ‘sweetitch’. This is an allergic skin reaction caused by Culicoides Midge bites. Mostly observed during warm months especially between April and September. The skin becomes swollen, extremely itchy, causing the horse to scratch sometimes leading to ulcers and bleeding areas. Management is key to help reduce the reaction in your horse. Fly masks, rugs, are very important as is fly repellent. Stabling the horse between 4pm and 10am can also help to reduce problems as well as location of the field (is it near open water areas). In severe cases then steroids may be necessary. A vaccine is also available, which is a course of 2 injections before the midge season (February-March).

Lice and Mites

Lice and mites also cause itchiness and alopecia (hair loss). Typically lice will live near the head, mane, tail and back and you can see eggs. Whereas mites live in the feathers and legs and are more common in heavier breeds. Lice only live for a short period of time in the environment so are easier to control then mites. Both can be contagious so isolation is important. Oral, topical and injectable treatments are available but are ‘off licensed’ in horses.


Sunburn can also affect your horse, especially on pink areas, applying sun cream can reduce the chance of skin cancer. Some horses that have pink areas may also have photosensitivity. Eating certain plants (like St John’s Wort) can cause photosensitivity. If you are concerned about photosensitivity then contact us to arrange a visit and a blood test to check liver parameters.

Skin Tumours

Skin tumours can appear on any area of your horse. Many resolving on their own if caused by the equine papilloma virus. Sarcoids are another type of skin tumour which are more serious and require removal. Please contact us if you are worried about a lump that has appeared especially in genital, chest or face regions. Looking ahead Although summer brings additional fly worries, it is important to maintain your horse’s skin condition all year round, often prevention is better than cure!

Top Tip:

Make sure that you have one grooming kit for each horse! This will help prevent cross contamination.

If you have any questions please feel free to contact Swanspool Equine & Farm Vets on 01933 222145 or visit www.swanspoolequine.com 

Veterinary advice in this magazine is provided as a general guide and you should always seek professional advice.