• Minimize insect exposure. The seasonal return of winged pests can trigger skin allergies associated with their bites. Hypersensitivity to the saliva of tiny biting midges (Culicoides spp.), also called sweet itch, is one of the more severe reactions. Any horse can be affected, but Icelandic Horses, Welsh Ponies and Shires are most susceptible because of a genetic predisposition to the condition. The most obvious sign of the allergy is extreme itchiness, with the horse rubbing himself hairless and raw when seeking relief. Areas where the insects like to feed—the chest, midline, crest and top of the tail—bear the brunt of the damage.
Researchers are working to develop a vaccine to reduce insect bite hypersensitivity, but currently management is the only defense against it. Keeping susceptible horses inside during periods of peak insect activity—primarily dawn and dusk—helps protect them, as does outfitting them in fly-proof garments, including sheets with belly bands, boots and masks with ear nets. Look for garments specifically made for horses with sweet itch. If the horse is kept in a stall, fine-net screens over windows and doors can keep pests out.
In the barn, stall fans will help because midges are generally weak flyers who cannot overcome anything beyond a slight breeze. However, if management isn’t enough to prevent sweet itch, consult with your veterinarian about medications, such as topical steroids, that may help ease your horse’s discomfort.
• Look out for rainrot. As the weather warms, some horses become prone to the skin condition known as rainrot. Despite what you may have heard, rainrot is not caused by fungus but is instead a bacterial infection. The causal organism, Dermatophilus congolensis, normally resides on the skin without causing trouble but multiplies on damp, dirty and sweaty coats. Rainrot causes tight, painful scabs to form along a horse’s topline and in runoff patterns along the flanks and hindquarters. Do not pick the scabs and be careful if you clip the coat—both can be very painful to the horse.
Instead, give your horse a few baths with a medicated, anti-microbial shampoo. As his winter coat sheds and the new coat emerges, the rainrot will most likely clear up quickly. Elderly horses or those with compromised immune systems may have more trouble fighting off the infection. In those cases, your veterinarian may suggest stronger treatments or medications.
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• Treat scratches promptly. Standing in muddy paddocks or run-in sheds can lead to a case of scratches, chapping and infection of the skin at the back of the fetlocks. The painful, oozing scabs form in the folds of skin and may be hidden under hair, but your horse will confirm their presence by protesting if you try to pick at the area. Treating scratches is simple: Wash the area with mild soap and dry it thoroughly—using a hair dryer if necessary—then lather the skin with a heavy-duty emollient, such as a diaper-rash cream, to act as a barrier against further moisture. Repeat this process every few days, or daily if the weather is very wet, and the affected skin will heal on its own. Giving the horse a dry place to stand during the day will help.
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