What will help my horse combat Sweet Itch?

by Dr. Lydia Gray | May 9th, 2013 5:35 PM | 2 Comments

Q. Dear Dr. Gray,

My horse is 15 years old and gets sweet itch every spring. Someone told me to add Flax seed meal to her diet. I’ve started that this winter. I’ve noticed a growth in her mane and tail but was wondering if it will help with the tail rubbing this spring. Thanks any info will be appreciated.

– TB, Virginia

A. Dear TB,

That “someone” was right on! Several research studies have shown that supplementing horses with omega-3 fatty acids—such as those found in flax seed, chia seed and fish oil—actually reduces inflammation in the body. One study specifically looked at horses with “sweet itch” and found a significant decrease in allergic skin response when they were fed flax seed.

As you know, “sweet itch” is an allergic response to the bite of the insect Culicoides, also known as midges or no-see-um’s. “Sweet itch” is therefore an insect bite hypersensitivity (IBH), the most common kind of allergic reaction in horses. In addition to causing horses to rub their manes and tails, “sweet itch” causes itching, crusting, hair loss and thickened skin on the dorsal (back) and ventral (belly) midline of the body. Other insects with different feeding patterns cause an allergic skin response in different parts of the body, such as the head or legs.

While the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are many and definitely include supporting skin health, MSM is another supplement you may want to consider for your horse. This potent antioxidant also has research supporting its use in allergic conditions, specifically recurrent airway obstruction or “heaves.” It is also reported to support the immune system as well as resilient skin, coat and hooves.

Don’t forget other measures to help your horse such as insect control (sheets with belly bands, keeping your horse inside at dusk and dawn, and eliminating standing water, decaying vegetation and manure from your property). Also, consider supplements with ingredients like garlic, brewer’s yeast, apple cider vinegar and others that are intended to deter insects. In the meantime, enjoy your horse’s improved mane, tail, coat and hooves, and the other benefits of omega-3 fatty acids!

About the Author

Dr. Lydia Gray is the Medical Director/Staff Veterinarian for SmartPak Equine where she networks with veterinarians; provides print and electronic media content, and guides food, supplement and pharmaceutical selections. Dr. Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. She continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country.

2 Responses to “What will help my horse combat Sweet Itch?”

  1. Is this supplement approved for pregnant mares?


    Hi Janey,

    It’s important not to make abrupt changes to the diet and management of pregnant mares. For this reason we always recommend seeking your veterinarian’s advice before adding any new supplements to your mare’s diet. SmartOmega 3, like many other supplements, has not been specifically evaluated for use in breeding animals or young foals, therefore we suggest following your vet’s advice on feeding this supplement.

    Dr. Gray

  2. thanks for a good reading!

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