Sweet itch is an allergic reaction some ponies have to the saliva of biting insects – mainly the Culicoides midge. The female midges need to feed on blood to mature their eggs and ponies provide the perfect dinner for them!
The immune system of an affected pony over-reacts to the midges’ saliva, which makes his skin inflamed and itchy. All types of pony have the potential to become affected by the skin condition and it tends to get worse as they age.
Timing is everything
Sweet itch is a seasonal condition, with midges being most active over the spring and summer months. Because of this, it’s super-important to start thinking about how you can help ease the symptoms of affected ponies in early February. Once a pony with sweet itch has been bitten and started scratching, it’s more difficult to keep on top of the condition.
Midges love damp, boggy places with plenty of stagnant water and shelter from the wind, as this gives them loads of places to breed. Where you can, it’s best to turn your pony out in a midge-unfriendly field. This could be…
- on a hill where winds are stronger – midges are unable to fly in winds of more than 5mph
- a well-drained field that’s not too boggy or muddy
- a field that’s away from any standing water, such as ponds or lakes
What to look out for
The top of your pony’s tail and around his mane are the most common areas he’ll scratch, so these are the easiest places to look for signs of sweet itch.
You’ll usually be able to see hair loss as a result of his rubbing and scratching, which leaves bald patches of swollen, irritated skin. In more severe cases, there may be open, weeping wounds and thickened, ridged skin after prolonged scratching.
An affected pony is often irritable and agitated – he might try to kick and bite at his skin to relieve the itch, as well as frequently rolling and attempting to scratch on any available object.
Block the contact
It’s not always possible to change your pony’s location, but there are plenty of other management methods you can put in place to minimise midge contact. These include…
- keeping your pony stabled at dawn and dusk when midges are most active
- covering stable windows and doors with a super-fine mesh to stop midges being able to fly in
- applying fly repellent regularly
- using a sweet itch rug and fly mask when he’s turned out to help keep insects off his skin
- cleaning water troughs and buckets daily to help prevent midges using them to breed
- applying topical creams or oils to his skin to act as a barrier – your vet will be able to give you advice on what to use
Top tip – Look for sweet itch rugs treated with an insecticide known as permethrin, as this kills midges that land on it.
Soothing the symptoms
If your pony’s already suffering from itchiness, it’s important to try to give him some relief. Washing him every couple of weeks with a hypoallergenic shampoo and applying a soothing lotion can help calm and heal his skin.
For more serious cases, your vet will be able to prescribe treatments such as steroids to help your pony cope and make him more comfortable.