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Keeping Horses Safe From Flies and Midges

Flies and midges can be a major annoyance for you and your horse, especially during the summer months. Not only are they annoying, they can also cause a number of problems; midges for example cause sweet itch, mosquitoes and other flying insects can carry diseases and flies can irritate the eyes and skin as well as cause general stress for your horse.

One of the major problems caused by flying insects is sweet itch. This is a ‘disease’ caused by midges and can be difficult to prevent, as such many preventative products and treatments have been created to help relieve the stress, inflammation and pain associated with the disease.

Sweet Itch

Sweet itch is a disease that affects thousands horses. It is caused when the horse suffers an allergic reaction to biting midges.

It is the saliva of the midges that causes the allergic reaction. There are certain proteins in the saliva that over-stimulate the horse’s immune system. The over-reaction (or hypersensitivity) is due to the horse’s white blood cells releasing an abundance of chemicals in an attempt to ‘protect’ the horse from the foreign midge saliva proteins. These chemicals (predominantly histamine) cause the horse’s skin to become itchy and inflamed.

An allergic reaction develops around the point where the midges bite and feed, causing skin lesions. The majority of these lesions occur around the head, ears, mane and tail.

These lesions cause a lot of distress for the horse, as they are extremely itchy. As a result the horse will rub and bite the lesions in an attempt to relieve the itching, leading to further damage. In some cases the excess rubbing can lead to secondary bacterial infections.

Treating Sweet Itch

Sweet Itch is both irritating for you and your hose. There are a number of methods however that you can use to keep those sweet itch-causing midges at bay!

Insect Repellents

Natural Ingredients

D-Limonene – Limonene is a natural molecule derived from the rind of lemons that has a strong citrus smell. At normal concentrations, D-Limonene is perfectly safe for both humans and horses. The same cannot be said for insects however as D-Limonene acts as a pesticide towards flies and midges.

Citriodiol – Citriodiol (also known as methoglycol) is found in small quantities in the leaves of the Eucalyptus tree, it acts as a coolant and has a smell similar to menthol.

Like Limonene, Citriodiol is safe for humans and horses but acts as a natural deterrent and pesticide towards flies and midges. Interestingly, Citriodiol was considered the only naturally derived substance that can repel West Nile Virus-carrying mosquitoes by the ‘Center for Disease Control’.

Synthetic Ingredients

DEET – DEET is a highly effective repellent that reacts with the olfactory (smell) receptors of insects, including flies and midges. Insects strongly ‘dislike’ the smell of DEET and are thus effectively repelled.

Barrier Techniques

Instead of using chemicals to keep the biting midges at bay, some people opt to use physical barriers such as rugs or fly masks. If a horse is being kept in the stable, a fly screen could also be used to prevent midges entering the stable.

Midges are most active at dawn and dusk, so stabling your horse during these periods can also help! Using this technique with any other of these listed techniques can be quite effective.

Nutritional Control

There are a number of natural ingredients or dietary components that can be added to your horse’s diet or applied to the skin and lesions to either prevent or treat sweet itch. Lavender oil and aloe vera can be applied to the skin to help reduce inflammation and reduce itching, whilst linseed oil or similar fatty acids can be added to the diet to boost skin and coat health.

Pharmaceutical Control

The allergic reaction to the bite of a midge causes the release of histamine by white cells. It is histamine that is responsible for the inflammation. Antihistamines can be given to a horse suffering from an allergic reaction to reduce itching and inflammation; antihistamines prevent histamine from binding to histamine receptors in the body and causing damage as a result.

Antibiotics can also be given to treat any possible secondary infections that arise due to the horse agitating the skin lesions.

Your Thoughts

Have you ever had to battle with flies and midges? Did you find any form of control/repulsion more effect than another? Let us know in the comments below.

About James Watts

BSc Bioveterinary Science. Editor of PetSci. When I'm not writing, learning, discussing, or reading about animals, you know it's the weekend! Currently developing PetSci HealthTrak, the fast and easy way to monitor your pet's weight and calorie intake. HealthTrak offers a simple way to track your pet's progress, helping them achieve a healthy weight and a long, happy life.

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