Up to Scratch–Relieving Itchy Horses


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You’ve just finished an energetic ride and your horse is hot and sweaty. You dismount and walk in front of him, only to be almost knocked off your feet and used as a rubbing post while the horse blissfully relieves the prickly itching on his head. But what causes this sensation...one capable of driving both man and horse to distraction?

Itching is a neurological response that remains something of a mystery, as no-one is quite sure what causes it. Basically, an itch is an irritation of the skin that evokes a desire to scratch the area and is similar to other skin sensations such as heat, cold, pain and touch.

Skin comprises a top layer known as the ‘epidermis’ and a deeper layer, known as the ‘hypodermis’ (which is why injections are given by needles called hypodermics...they penetrate the deeper skin layer). Itch receptors exist in the epidermis and are separate from the nerve endings that alert the brain to pain. In fact, it’s possible to feel itching and pain at the same time!

Itching is influenced by individual awareness, meaning people and horses have different levels of tolerance; what’s a minor bother for some is felt as intense irritation by others.

It’s also possible for itchiness to be intensified by nervousness and some purebred horses may be more troubled by biting insects than a thick-skinned pony. It’s easy to identify your horse’s tolerance level by observing his reaction to flies. Does he constantly stamp his feet and swish his tail? Or is he seemingly oblivious, happy to play host to a swarm of invading insects? Other ‘itch triggers’ are boredom, anxiety and stress, all of which are capable of stimulating a scratching frenzy.

An itch can be classified as being spontaneous or pathological. Spontaneous itches, also known as mechanical itches, go directly to the itch fibre. They are brief and sharp and quickly relieved by scratching. They are usually seen when the skin is irritated by external causes such as insects or an object (such as a hanging stirrup leather) gently brushing against and tickling the skin.

A pathological itch is a more persistent, wide-spreading sensation that accompanies inflamed or diseased skin as in the case of ringworm, lice, eczema and the like.

Anyone who has suffered from hives or the after-effects of a mosquito bite or bee sting should be able to identify with the persistent itching and burning that remains unrelieved by vigorous scratching!

A simple, spontaneous itch promotes a scratch reflex and this can even be a subconscious reaction. People (and I’ve witnessed it in horses as well) absent-mindedly scratch away while absorbed in something else.

Itches are relieved when scratching disturbs the rhythm of itch receptors which in turn interrupts the nerves responsible for relaying the message to the brain. Additionally, cooling or heating the skin can block an itch, so perhaps the friction and heat caused by scratching is enough to stop the sensation.

The speed at which the itching sensation travels via the nerves to the brain is around two metres per second, whereas pain is registered in hundredths of a second. This means if you have an itchy foot, it would take a couple of seconds before you respond by scratching!

Causes of itching

If your horse seems to be scratching a lot, it’s important to find the source of his discomfort before you are able to provide some sort of relief. Worms, spread by flies, can be a source of itching. Stomach worm spreads via intermediate hosts of various fly species. The infective larvae migrate from the fly to the horse when the fly alights to obtain moisture from the lips, eyes and open wounds. The female Pin Worm lays eggs around the horse’s rectum, causing irritation the affected horse, who will rub his rear against any available object. You can tell if your horse has pin worms by examining the region for tell-tale, creamy coloured eggs. If itching is accompanied by signs of circular hair loss (similar in appearance to ringworm), then small roundworms could be the culprits and these are also deposited on the skin by flies.

All horse owners are familiar with the pesky bot fly and when bot fly larvae are ready to hatch from their yellow eggs, they cause irritation and itching, which makes the horse lick his legs, swallowing the larvae and so helping them on their way to the next, more destructive stage of their life-cycle. Regular removal of the eggs will help reduce bot numbers although it’s inevitable some will be ingested by the horse. These and other worms can be controlled by a strict, regular worm program and good pasture management.

Another type of seasonal itching occurs during cold weather. Causes are lice and mange which thrive in the thicker, waxier winter coat of the horse. Both these parasites can be a source of intense itching and are highly contagious. The horse should be regularly treated with suitable chemicals available from vets, produce stores and saddle shops. All grooming gear, saddlery and rugs will also need to be thoroughly disinfected or fumigated to avoid reinfestation.

Allergies can also be responsible for the sudden onset of itching. If the itch appears to be localised, it may be a reaction to an insect bite or even something the horse has brushed against or rolled in.

If the irritation appears more wide-spread, it could be something unusual in the diet or a hypersensitive reaction to a drug.

Most long-standing allergies suffered by horses are caused by insects although if some other substance is suspected, it’s possible a vet maybe able to identify and treat it by injecting your horse with various antigens (the same as for human testing).

Ringworm is a highly contagious fungal infection that can be spread from man to horse and vice-versa, or through infected saddlery. Tell-tale signs include raised, hairless lesions that are extremely itchy. Ringworm can be treated by isolating the horse and regularly applying iodine, Betadine or an anti-fungal cream available from chemists.

Queensland Itch is an allergic reaction caused by hypersensitivity to the bite of the sandfly, which results in intense itching, hair loss and thickening of the skin. Not all horses exposed to the sandfly become hypersensitive but susceptible horses are usually affected each year. The sandfly feeds mostly in the early morning and late afternoon and during these times the horse shows uneasiness by rubbing or even galloping in an effort to escape the biting.

Most attacks take place between December and May, with horses recovering during winter. Treatment consists of rugging and hooding the horse during likely attack times; stabling in screened, insect-proof stables and spraying with insect repellent.

Relentless pathological itching can be utter torment for horses, yet it needs to be interrupted for effective healing to take place.

Your vet will be able to administer a number of itch-relieving drugs including anti-inflammatories, antihistamines and antibiotics to combat bacterial infection. Many lotions designed for humans may soothe and relieve horse itches...calamine lotion, Betadine (for fungal infection) and even Preparation H (designed to treat human haemorrhoids!)

Take the time to diagnose and treat your horse’s various itches...after all, he doesn’t come equipped with fingernails! Instead he relies on teeth, nose rubbing and even hind hooves (for that tricky spot behind the ears). You will even see horses indulging in mutual scratching for those really hard to reach areas.

Shedding winter coats often makes horses feel prickly and itchy and they’ll appreciate a good all-over itch-relieving roll, so remove their rugs as often as possible and let them at it!

During grooming, you might notice your horse pulling strange faces when you’re currycombing a particular spot...this means they’re really enjoying you scratching their itch! Some horses have even learned to swing their noses around and indicate just where their itch is, so oblige them with your fingernails, rubber currycomb or dandy brush and watch their bliss! Ever had an itch on your back you just can’t reach? That’s how it is for horses!

So the next time your horse tries to rub his itchy, sweaty head against you, cut him a little slack!

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