Does your horse get itchy during certain times of the year, especially during warmer weather? If so, a condition known as equine dermatitis is likely to blame. 

Dermatitis is a general term that describes skin irritation, and as you might expect, it can have multiple causes. Telltale signs in horses usually include rubbing against trees, fences, or stall walls, and biting at their skin.  

Symptoms of dermatitis in horses may include: 

  • Redness
  • Skin inflammation 
  • Tender skin
  • Dull hair coat
  • Dry, scaly lesions
  • Bumps or sores
  • Hair loss or matted hair
  • Thickening of the skin
  • Overall irritability

Getting to the root cause of your horse’s itchiness will be key in dealing with this frustrating problem.

Common Causes of Horse Dermatitis 

Determining the exact cause of your horse’s dermatitis may not be easy. However, careful examination of his environment, feeding program, and management can help you and your veterinarian narrow down the possible culprits. 

Some of the most common causes of equine dermatitis involve hypersensitivity disorders. These include the following:

Contact Dermatitis 

This condition is caused by something that comes in contact with your horse’s skin, leading to an allergic reaction. 

Common culprits include fly sprays, shampoos, or other topical products. Another possible source of contact dermatitis could be your stall bedding. If you’ve recently switched to a new product, stop using it and see if your horse’s dermatitis improves. 

Food Allergies

Just like us, horses may also develop allergies to certain foods or ingredients. Though this can be much tougher to pinpoint, if you suspect a food allergy, remove all feed and supplements except grass or hay to see if your horse improves. 

After several weeks, slowly add feed and supplements back in to see if your horse reacts to one of them. However, keep in mind that horses can also be allergic to pollen or certain plants in pasture or hay, so these may be a hidden cause behind equine dermatitis. 

Medication Allergies

Like food allergies, medication allergies in horses can also result in dermatitis. Vaccines, topical or oral medications could all produce a response in sensitive horses. The good news is that this type of dermatitis is usually short-lived once the medication is stopped. 

Culicoides Hypersensitivity

This is one of the most common causes of equine dermatitis. Often referred to as Sweet Itch, this hypersensitivity occurs when horses react to salivary proteins of Culicoide midges. Managing Culicoides sensitivity can be difficult. However, it usually involves avoiding these tiny insects as much as possible. This often means that you will likely need to do the following:

  • Stable your horse from before dusk until after dawn each day
  • Remove standing water where the midges lay their eggs
  • Only graze horses on dry pasture 
  • Use insect repellents 
  • Use insect-proof sheets

Atopic Dermatitis

Another common cause of itchiness in horses, atopic dermatitis involves sensitivity to environmental allergens such as dust mites, molds, and pollen. It can be seasonal or, in warmer climates, occur year round. 

Atopic dermatitis may present as hives that don’t itch, hives that do itch, or itchiness with no visible hives, usually on the face and trunk. Treatment usually includes allergen-specific immunotherapy. 

Diagnosing Equine Dermatitis

Diagnosing equine dermatitis isn’t difficult, but the often tricky part is determining the root cause of the problem. This means that you should definitely get your veterinarian involved as soon as possible. 

Your vet will likely do a three-part evaluation, beginning with getting a history of your horse’s itchy skin or lesions. He/she will want to know what your horse’s allergy symptoms are, when they first developed, and if there have been any recent changes in your horse’s feeding program or management. 

They will most likely do a physical exam, evaluating your horse’s skin and any apparent lesions. They may also collect skin or hair samples, as well as discharge or debris from affected areas. These samples can then further be evaluated under the microscope.  

The intradermal allergy test is considered the gold standard of allergy diagnostic tools. However, this may only be done by veterinary dermatologists at large clinics and can be expensive. Just as with people, this skin test helps veterinarians determine which substances may produce a reaction in the horse’s skin. 

Blood can also be drawn and sent off for allergy testing. While a blood test isn’t as sensitive, it may be helpful in some cases. 

Another reason you’ll want to get your veterinarian involved for any long-term itchiness problems is because secondary bacterial and yeast infections are a common result of skin inflammation and therefore, may need additional treatment. 

Itchy Horse Remedies and Treating Dermatitis

Aside from contact dermatitis or a medication allergy, treating equine dermatitis isn’t always an easy fix. It will likely take time to determine what may be causing your horse’s skin reaction as well as to control the inflammation and itchiness. Common treatments include glucocorticoids and antihistamines. 

Topical medications and shampoos may help to temporarily calm skin reactions as well. Examples of helpful ingredients include oatmeal and aloe, as well as medical-grade ingredients like pramoxine and steroids such as hydrocortisone. 

Immunotherapy, also known as hyposensitization, can be used to help a horse’s body acclimate to certain allergens. When the horse is repeatedly injected with small amounts of the determined allergen(s), they will become less sensitive to the substance. These allergy shots have a reported success rate between 60-80%. However, as with some other treatments for equine dermatitis, it may take time to see results. It should be noted that immunotherapy isn’t currently effective with Culicoides sensitivity, however. 

How Nutrition Can Help 

Nutrition can play an important role in helping to heal dermatitis. Omega-3 supplements have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects as well as other benefits for the skin and hair coat. In fact, studies show that adding flaxseed to your horse’s diet can reduce reactions to Culicoide bites. 

Increasing evidence shows that the intestinal microbiome significantly influences systemic inflammation and disease. Because of this, adding high quality probiotics such as Fullbucket’s Probiotic Pellets, to your horse’s diet may be beneficial for treating equine dermatitis as well. Studies in people show that probiotics can decrease symptoms of atopic dermatitis.

Trace minerals, especially zinc, are also important in skin health. One study showed that concentrations of both zinc and nickel were significantly lower in horses with allergic dermatitis than in healthy control horses. Ensuring that your horse’s trace mineral needs are met with a supplement or ration balancer may help to improve their symptoms. 

Equine dermatitis can be a frustrating problem to deal with–for horses and owners alike. However, involving your veterinarian and staying diligent in sorting out the root cause of your horse’s skin allergies and itchiness is key to improving the condition and helping your horse to feel better. 

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Read More:

The Role of Probiotics in the Treatment of Atopic Dermatitis 

Analysis of Horses with Allergic Dermatitis

Photo by Joanne O'Keefe on Unsplash

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