SWEET ITCH. UGH. What is it, anyway?…

What is Sweet Itch?

Why do they call it Sweet Itch?

–How can I get rid of it?

Yup.  It is the season (April – October).  Rumpled tails, scabby underbellies, itchy withers.  Yuk.

What is Sweet Itch?  Well… basically, true sweet itch is a bite from a midge that irritates the horse.  Severe Sweet Itch is when the horse has an allergic reaction to the saliva in the bites.




I have no idea.  Couldn’t find it anywhere, either.

But, I suspect it is because it feels so sweet when your horse rubs the beejeesus out of it.

A bad case…


Here is what Mr. Wikipedia had to say.

Sweet Itch is a medical condition in equines caused by an allergic response to the bites of Culicoides midges. It may be found in any horses and ponies, especially in the warmer regions. It may also occur, too, in other equines.[1] It is also found in Canada, Australia, the US and many other parts of the world.

A hypersensitivity reaction to specific allergens (protein molecules causing an extreme immune response in sensitised individuals) in the saliva of Culicoides midges. There are multiple allergens involved,[3] although some workers claim that the larger proteins (of molecular weight 65kDa) are the most important.[4] These allergens appear to be cross-reactive across many species of Culicoides – i.e. many different varieties of midges produce similar allergens, giving the same effects upon horses.[5]

The hypersensitivity response is mediated by IgE, an antibody produced by the horse’s immune system which binds the allergens, causing a cascade production of histamine and cytokines which make the horse’s skin inflamed and itchy. Of these, histamine appears the most important in the initial phase of reaction


1)  Basically, you have to try to eliminate the biting thing.

–No standing water… these Culicoides flies breed around water.  But they don’t fly more than 100 yards from their source so it is bebeficial to move horses away from the water source.

–Clean the troughs so eggs are killed.

–Keep pastures drained.

–Stable a horse one hour before sunrise and one hour before sunset – when the flies are the worst.

–Use fans in stables as the midges cannot fly against fan blown air.

–Cover the highly effected horse with a midge-proof blanket like the Boett Blanket and hood system.  Here is a link to a post I wrote previously about fly and midge blanketing.

Some horses are so effected they need a lightweight fly covering like the Boett.


2)  Stop the Itch!

If a horse isn’t having a physical allergic reaction to the midge bite, you can help stop the itch with topical ointments.

I use NOT SO SWEET ITCH from Equi-Spa.  I prefer the gel to the spray but they have both…  I rub the lotion hard into the tail dock – which the horses love – and the herbs cool and sooth any affected area.  The horses really respond to it and their skin settles down in no time.   I also use THE BALM for under the belly scabs.  It stays on really well and helps heal the wound as it keeps flies way.  Love the stuff.  Just used it to heal that huge wound Wrigley had on his stifle.  No flies.  Healed beautifully.

I USE THIS!! The gel form works best for me.


  Home remedies…  (from Equus Magazine)

  • Add cider vinegar 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.

Combine the following ingredients and apply the mixture to sweet itch sores twice daily.

  • 8 oz. of Gold Bond Medicated Body Lotion (Extra Strength, in green bottle)
  • 4 oz. Aveeno Anti-Itch Concentrated Lotion
  • 4 oz. Benadryl Itch-Stopping Gel
  • 4 oz. Avon Skin So Soft (increase up to 8 oz. if the gnats are bad).


4)  If it is really bad… call the vet.

He may give you a steroidal drug to stop the itch so your horse doesn’t wreck himself…



5)  A New thing – BIOEOS…  From the National Sweet-Itch Centre in the UK

This is a capsule that you can hide in an apple.  I’m not a pharmacist but the idea here is this drug  helps the body calm down and quit attacking itself.

Here is the article and the link to it.  Also, if you’d like to order some of the pills, here is the order page.

History of the development of the BioEos Capsules
By Professor John Stanford Scientific Director, BioEos Ltd

Sweet-itch is a problem caused by an excessive reaction to the bites of midges. It begins with an intolerably itchy allergic reaction to the saliva of the midge, which is then followed by an autoimmune over-reaction as the horse’s immune system attempts to right the original wrong. During this process thickening and ulceration of the skin occurs and this only returns to normal at the end of the midge season. Both the allergy and the autoimmunity are caused by a dysregulation of the immune system to a mode known as Th2. Treatments which cause the immune system to return to the positive mode, known as Th1, are likely to be successful. This has already been accomplished in human medicine in eczema and asthma, using a very similar approach.

Over the last 7 years we have been working on developing a simple and safe product, based on a suspension of heat-killed bacilli of a carefully selected species. This modulates the immune response from the dysregulation that leads to sweet-itch to a more normal response to midge bites. This also corrects problems with the subsequent tissue-healing process. One of our difficulties has been to work out the optimal schedule for use of the treatment. We started with intradermal injections, then capsules being given orally at monthly intervals, then fortnightly, but now “feed-back” suggest it is better for the capsules to be fed weekly. The treatment is extremely safe with few reports of even minor side effects.

We have found from analysis of owner’s end-of-year assessment forms, submitted during the last years of trials, that some 90% of horses show an improvement in their symptoms. In 70% of horses there is a 50% or more improvement and in 10% of horses a 90% or more improvement. Of those few horses that do not respond well there is some evidence that they benefit from successive years of treatment.

‘The Capsules’ from BioEos.

We’ve known them as ‘The Capsules’ for what seems like an eternity. In our first year of collaboration with BioEos, eight years ago, the Sweet Itch Centre played host to eighteen equines, all suffering quite severely. Today over 1,400 horses ponies and donkeys have been involved in the trials, and the capsules (non-steroidal) have gone from strength to strength with many success stories being reported. It has been a fascinating journey and we are delighted that we have been able to help make it happen.

Those of you whose horses were involved in the early days will know that BioEos started treatment with a course of three intra-dermal injections, followed by capsules fed once a month. The potential cost to owners was high as each injection had to be administered by a Veterinary Surgeon and the results were not spectacular.

Feed back from owners over the years suggested that giving a capsule weekly gave the best results and now the recommendation is for a weekly capsule to be fed through-out the year. There is no down-side to this as it has been ably demonstrated, during the strictest of regulated trials, that no unwanted side effects are evident.

Now we have come ‘full circle’. Injections are no longer necessary and the little white capsules have come of age, been re-packaged in atmospherically sealed blister packs and re-branded and patented as ‘Bio Plus Equine’ – although we will probably always think of them as ‘The Capsules’!

How to Administer
One a week – it couldn’t be easier! The little capsule is inserted into a hole made in a small piece of apple or carrot, or disguised in a tiny amount of coarse mix, and fed by hand. This way, if there are several horses in a group, you can feed the capsule to the one you want, without being mobbed by the others, as could happen if you entered the field swinging a bucket!

Bio Eos Capsules

When to Administer
We have been asked many times over the years “When should I start feeding the capsules?” or “When should I stop?” Now it’s simple. Climate change may well be playing havoc with our seasons, but, for your horse’s sake, continue to feed all year round – don’t stop.

Lower Pricing
Good news on the price front: Previously owners paid £240 inc. VAT and p&p for 40 capsules. Now, for the same price, 52 capsules (a full year’s supply) will be provided. Smaller quantities are available as follows. The prices include VAT and p. and p.

26 capsules (6 months supply) £140.
12 capsules (3 months supply) £75.

Jennifer Greaves, The National Sweet Itch Centre




They called me pleading with me to take this little guy who was already in the pen with a slaughter tag on his hip.  I was very nervous about taking on a baby but how could I let him get on that truck after seeing that face?

So for $75, Chancellor was ready to go to his new home.  We live about 6 hours away from the lady who took Chance home with her.  She didn’t have an ideal set up for quarantine so we needed to move him fast.  A day after she brought him to her place he started getting sick.  Some form of auction fever.  My husband had volunteered to transport a filly and a pony along with Chance.  This meant going several hours out of the way.  My poor husband called me after dropping off the pony, he was distraught and told me he wasn’t sure Chancellor would make it home alive.  He was down in the trailer and very ill.  We made the decision to have him continue home, we would not have known where to take him so far from home.  Finally, they arrived.  We had a run in shed for his quarantine but the weather was uncharacteristically cold.  The vet came right out to see him and he had a fever and tons and tons of nasty green snot.  He was depressed and lonely.  He was on antibiotics 4 times a day for over 3 months.  His vet and I believe that this damaged his immune system and that is what led him to such extreme bug bite sensitivity (sweet itch).  His first summer he was itchy.  His second summer was worse.  By the summer of 2010 he was miserable.  He would spend hours and hours finding ways to itch himself, especially his belly and face.  We tried everything.  Heavy duty probiotics, digestive enzymes and antioxidants, every topical spray and cream I could find, fly sheets and masks (not very helpful and too hot)….. benedryl was not a help and the vet and I both agreed that cortisone would be a very last resort.  By the end of last summer he was a mess.  He had rubbed off his mane, forelock, and most of his tail.  He had developed a hard patch of scar tissue on his belly and his face was rubbed raw.  Please understand that he was under treatment, we weren’t just sitting back and letting him suffer, we just weren’t having much success. Clearly something had to change.  Someone told my vet about the Boett blanket which was invented in Sweden for horses with severe sweet itch.  The Boett is NOT a fly sheet.  It is a different type of material and is designed to be able to be worn 24/7. We decided to give it a try.  The US dealer I found online was Estelle’s Safety Reflective Wear http://estellesreflectivewear.com/cart/?action=View Items&catid=6&category=Sweet Itch Blankets&categoryid=6&EstellesReflectiveWearCart=d1f33ec624a15e7e27b5e013dbb39502.  There are directions for proper measuring and then she asks some questions about breed, etc. to be sure you are ordering the correct size.  Chancellor was a bit unsure of this contraption at first but he very quickly learned it was helping him.  We got to the point where if we had to take it off him for some reason he would quickly wind himself up into almost a panic.  His blanket is off for the season now and what a difference from last year!  He has a beautiful, soft coat.  The scar tissue on his belly is gone.  He has a LONG and beautiful head of hair.
The only minor issue I had was what to do with his mane under the blanket/ face mask.  I did braid it but still ended up with a huge mat.  As you can see from the pictures below (first one is after i got the worst of the mat out) , it did comb out ok.  But the best thing of course is seeing how relaxed and content he was this summer.  And I have to say he never came close to overheating in the blanket, even when we had a couple days over 100 degrees which is unheard of here.

HORSE AND MAN is a blog in growth… if you like this, please pass it around!



We are very close to paying for the braces that this poor pony mare needs! Yippee! click here for the story!


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HORSE AND MAN is a blog in growth... if you like this, please pass it around!

2 comments have been posted...

  1. Robynne Catheron

    Thankfully, we don’t have midges here in upstate New York, but that Boett blanket looks like a very good idea if we did. One of my horses gets a scattering of tiny bumps just behind his front legs, and I use Not So Sweet Itch spray on it. I also use a product called Belly Baalm from Tail Tamers on all my horses’ back “arnpits” where they were getting bitten by biting flies. It lasts for several days, and works awesome. I put a tiny dab on my finger and rub it inside the top of each ear, also.

  2. Tami Vroma

    OMG I cannot even believe this….I took my horse to the vet YESTERDAY because of this!!! I already feed bug check and there is no standing water. I think I will order the Not So Sweet Itch and see what happens. My vet thought maybe pin worms or the sheath needed cleaning. I am going to email them this article.

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