What is Itching (Pruritus)?
Physiological problems can begin to present and affect your horse. When your horse has itching that has become so intense that they are unable to sleep, severe fatigue will occur. Noticeable behavioral changes can occur when your horse becomes fatigued. Gastric ulcers can develop when your horse becomes so agitated from the itching.
Itching in horses, also known as pruritus, is one of the most common conditions in horses that require veterinary attention. Some horse owners will also refer to pruritus as sweet itch. Your horse will become agitated and possibly even aggressive when the pruritus is extreme enough. The skin itself can become damaged from constant scratching; horses will rub their body on anything that will provide them with some relief from the itch. This can cause cuts and scrapes that are painful and create the possibility of an infection if not properly treated.
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Symptoms of Itching (Pruritus) in Horses
Horses can show pruritus in many different ways. It is your responsibility to go over your horse often and note any changes to their behavior and skin. Take note of what has triggered the itching and where on their body that they are rubbing or biting when you notice your horse itching or exhibiting any of these symptoms. This information will help your veterinarian determine the cause of the pruritus and the best treatment options available.
- Itching and rubbing, usually along the back, tail and mane
- Itching along the legs and underbelly
- Loss of hair on the tail or mane
- Bald patches
- Skin damage, usually open broken skin that tends to bleed
- Rolling, rubbing on trees or fences
- Head shaking
- Weight loss
- Aggressive behavior
Causes of Itching (Pruritus) in Horses
It is not fully understood all of the factors that can cause pruritus in horses. It is known that pruritus results from the stimulation of nerve endings and receptors in the skin. Itchy skin can develop as a result of ectoparasites, infections or allergies. Ectoparasites are most biting insects. Seasonal changes can also cause pruritus to become prevalent.
Diagnosis of Itching (Pruritus) in Horses
When your veterinarian arrives for a consultation for a problem with excessive itching, give your veterinarian a full history of any skin issues. Also, let them know when the itching intensifies and what behavior changes you have observed.
Your veterinarian will conduct a full physical examination, paying close attention to any areas where the skin has been damaged or dry, flaky patches are appearing. The physical examination will determine whether your horse is suffering from any parasitic causes such as fleas, ticks, demodex mange, contagious mites or lice.
If no parasitic causes are found, a skin scraping will be done to determine if any microscopic mites are present. If your veterinarian verifies the presence of microscopic mites, specific medications will be given to alleviate the itching and kill off the mites.
Bacterial infections will also be looked for when examining the skin scrapings. A fungal culture may be performed. Skin biopsies can also be done to determine that your horse is suffering from pruritus.
Allergy testing can be done to determine if there are environmental, seasonal or food allergies present that are causing the excessive itching. Excessive yeast can also lead to pruritus.
Treatment of Itching (Pruritus) in Horses
Once the exact cause of the pruritus in your horse has been determined, a treatment plan can be put in place to help manage the symptoms and bring relief to your horse. Your veterinarian will go over what the underlying cause of the itching is and how to help your horse not have flare ups of uncontrolled pruritus.
Essential fatty acids are beneficial to your horse as a long term therapy option. Adding essential fatty acids to your horse’s feed will help add oils to the coat and skin, preventing dry skin.
Glucocorticoids are the most effective medications for managing pruritus. Glucocorticoids are anti-inflammatories that help relieve the agitated nerve endings and receptors. These drugs should not be used long term as they can cause adverse effects to your horse. They are a safer alternative to steroids.
Topical creams can be used to give instant relief, although they do nothing to cure pruritus. Topical steroidal creams can offer the best relief, although they should never be used long term. Shampoos that contain colloidal oatmeal and essential oils can soothe your horse and give some relief from the intense itching. Sulphur based products have also had positive benefits in relieving pruritus.
Antihistamines have been used when allergies are present. They should be used with caution as they can cause your horse to become drowsy. Currently, there are no antihistamines on the market that are licensed specifically for use in horses. Most veterinarians prescribe over the counter antihistamines that are human grade.
Recovery of Itching (Pruritus) in Horses
Once the exact cause of the excessive itching has been determined and your veterinarian has set a treatment plan in place, your horse should do well and live a normal life. Some horses will require long term treatments and lifestyle changes to keep sudden flare ups of pruritus from occurring.
There are some extreme cases where only the symptoms can be treated to keep your horse comfortable. In these cases, your veterinarian will schedule follow up visits and manage your horse’s care long term.
Itching (Pruritus) Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
My 19 year old Paint mare has been diagnosed with kidney failure. I have switched her from a senior feed to whole oats to lower her protein intake, and will gradually start adding oil to her diet for additional energy. She is in the pasture every day, and has access to fresh water and a salt block. Lately she has started rubbing her face, neck, and shoulders against trees and buildings to the point she is rubbing off her hair. She's always been a bit itchy in the six years I've had her, but now she's getting worse and the reading I've done suggests it is a symptom of her kidney situation. What can I do to provide her with some relief? Will adding the oil to her nightly feed help? We're finally getting some warm weather as we head towards summer, and I don't want her to suffer from sunburn from not having any hair left.
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My horse has severe itching to the point of self mutilation. He is under the care of a vet but we haven't been able to come up for a reason. Antihistamines are not helping. He has had laminitis so anti-inflammatories or steroids can not be used. The vet has recommended testing for Cushings, but would that help in treating the itching.
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My horse has been showing progressive itching over the last few weeks. I noticed bald spots 2 weeks ago. Today I noticed an open wound as well. She is compulsively grooming and asking other horses to groome her. She has been been biting herself in order to relieve the itching. Bald spots and itch is only on her right side, along the body, and bald spots are near the manes and on the withers. A month ago she stopped eating well. She has cushing disease and started on prascend 3 weeks ago.
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