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8 Tips for Managing Equine Insect Hypersensitivity
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8 Tips for Managing Equine Insect Hypersensitivity

Insect bite hypersensitivity or sweet itch is a common dermatological ailment in horses. It is an allergic reaction to the saliva of biting flies and midges. These insects are active from April through October and can make your horse’s life miserable during this time of the year. Typically, insects tend to bite horses under their belly, around the head or neck, under the mane or the base of the tail. The allergic reaction causes inflammation in the affected areas causing itchy skin. As a result, they scratch and rub the area so much that the hair falls out and sores and scabs develop. Extensive scratching can lead to secondary infections and one miserable horse.

Here are simple tips that can help you to limit your horse’s exposure to these irritating insects.

1. Feed Omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in flaxseeds, are proven to be beneficial for horses with insect bite hypersensitivity. Omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce reactions to Culicoides bites and also promote a healthy hair coat.

2. Apply Insect Repellents

Insect repellents come in sprays, ointments, and wipes. Topical ointments containing antihistamines or corticosteroids may help ease the itch and inflammation, providing relief to the itchy horse. A fly spray with a relatively high concentration of pyrethroid-permethrin also helps to kill gnats and keep them off your horse. Fly repellents focused on the shoulders, neck, withers, lower body and legs can be effective if applied to the horse daily.  Make sure to follow manufacturer’s instructions as many of these sprays and wipes are unsuitable for regular use.

3. Invest in a Sweet Itch Blanket:

A sweet itch blanket serves as a protective barrier against insects. These fly blankets are made of fine mesh and are designed specifically to cover a horse’s neck, chest belly, and tail, the areas where insects are more likely to bite. A fine mesh face mask may also be needed to protect the horse’s face and ears. Make sure these fly blankets fit properly and are both stretchable and durable. Some fly sheets come impregnated with insecticides, which can offer an extra layer of protection, but you can also spray the sheets with insecticides.

4. Install Fans:

Culicoides midges and other biting insects are weak fliers and can't navigate strong air currents. So, installing a fan in your horse’s stall will help to keep mosquitoes and gnats away from your horses. To prevent electrical barn fires, make sure to use fans designed for agricultural or industrial settings.

5. Encourage Insect-eating Birds:

Birds and bats are natural enemies of insects. Swallows can be a tremendous asset to your barn. They can consume about 1,000 insects per day. Bats can also have a great impact on your insect population. These nocturnal predators feast on the insects that plague your horses at night. They might also catch day-fliers in the early dusk.

6. Fly Trap

Fly traps are an effective way to reduce the adult fly population. There are several types of simple, noninsecticidal traps available in the market. Fly paper or tape is one of the cheapest and simplest methods to kill insects. Sticky fly traps work by attracting flies, either through colour or odour. Once the fly enters the trap, it sticks to the glue-covered surface, and can’t escape and eventually dies. Other traps use bait to draw the flies inside. Bait jars have food attractant that activates when dissolved in water. Attracted by the scent or colour, flies enter the trap and drown in the water. Such traps with attractants should be placed away from barns and horses as they may attract more flies to the area.

7. Bring Your Horse Inside:

Culicoides and other biting insects are most active during dawn and dusk hours. So, avoid turning out horses during these periods of the day.

8. Eliminate Mosquito Breeding Conditions:

Following good stable hygiene, such as removal of manure and standing water disrupts insect breeding and reduces their population. Keep your stalls clean and dry by removing manure and dumping standing water from the buckets. Other types of insects prefer a warm moist environment for laying eggs such as soiled bedding. Thus, it is important to regularly clean and replace stall bedding to deter flies from your barn. Cleaning up spilled hay, grain, and trash, scrubbing out feed bins and buckets, and keeping feed bags and bins closed can also prove to be helpful. In addition to keeping stalls clean and dry, regularly picking horse manure out of pastures and paddocks can also help to reduce fly population.

With all of these above tips, you’ll be able to reduce the nuisance of problematic insects around your property and make your horse happier and healthier.

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