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Flies - The Curse Of Summer!
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Flies - The Curse Of Summer!

Although the fine summer weather is wonderful after all the mud and rain of a seemingly endless winter, it brings with it a familiar and tedious nuisance for horses: flies. Flies attack horses in many different ways:

  • Biting flies bite through the horse’s skin to feed on its blood
  • Nuisance flies settle on the horse’s eyes, nose and other sensitive areas
  • Some flies carry disease, for example mosquitoes spread West Nile Virus which is a big problem in the US

All flies are a pain, particularly for horses that live out.

The worst offenders

Horseflies (Tabinidae): These particularly unpleasant critters appear in June and July and are usually encountered around wooded areas and during warm, balmy weather. They bite your horse in order to feed off its blood and pick sensitive sites where the skin is thinnest such as the belly, legs, neck and withers. The bites appear as painful lumps with a central ulcer. Stabling is an effective deterrent as horseflies rarely venture into dark areas.

The only really effective deterrents against horseflies are insecticides – pyrethroids – which can be bought in tack shops or from your vet.

Black flies (Simuliidae): These pesky little blighters are tiny and breed in rapidly moving water. They appear at dusk and dawn during the early summer and spring months and feed around the horse’s face, especially inside the ears and on other sensitive areas. An allergic reaction often occurs manifesting itself as painful lumps with tiny areas of bleeding and crusting.

Physical barriers like ear nets are useful as are oil-based deterrent products and synthetic pyrethroid sprays. Smearing the inside of the ears with petroleum jelly can stop the flies biting. Stabling at dawn and dusk is a good preventative measure if possible.

Midges (Culicoides): Midges are commonly observed as swarms hovering at dawn and dusk. They are particularly prevalent around bodies of stagnant water where they lay their eggs. There are different species of midge which feed at different sites on the horse. Common results of biting are rubbing away of the mane and tail and the exacerbation of sweet itch in animals with an allergy to the bites.

Permethrin-based repellents are very effective against midges and should be applied in the late afternoon. Bath oil mixed 50:50 with water and applied to the coat several times during the day can prevent the midges from landing. Once again, stabling before dusk is helpful as are sweet itch rugs.

Stable flies: These flies feed on horses’ legs and abdomens causing itchy, painful wheals with a nasty central crust. They lay their eggs in moist areas of rotten vegetation and are often associated with poor stable hygiene.

Maintaining high standards of stable hygiene will keep these beasties at bay and permethrin-based repellent products are also effective.

Treatment

Fly bites can be simply soothed by applying an ice pack or bathing with cool, salted water. If your horse has suffered multiple bites, a mild shampoo can help to get rid of bacteria and scurf and cool inflamed skin. Application of a topical preparation to ease itching can also be useful – ask your vet for something or try calamine lotion or witch hazel.

Wasp stings should be bathed with a dilute acid like lemon juice or vinegar. Bee stings should be bathed with bicarbonate of soda. If a sting has been left behind, try to remove it with tweezers if you can to prevent more venom from entering the skin. If the stinger is beneath the skin, normal shedding will remove it.

Bites don’t generally become infected, but if the site is weeping and open, bathe it with a mild antiseptic solution. If it does not clear up within a day or so, consult your vet.

Preventative measures

  • If possible, stable horses at times when flies are most active
  • Use barriers like anti-midge turnout rugs along with masks or fringes
  • Regularly apply a long-lasting fly spray – always spot test a small area first to make sure your horse does not have an allergic reaction
  • Use fly-trap tape or insecticide spray around your stables
  • Always maintain good hygiene around the yard and stables
  • Remove any areas of stagnant water where midges could breed
  • If possible, use a fan in the stable to discourage flies
  • Worm horses against bots during the winter

Image courtesy Shutterstock

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