June 10, 2021 4 min read
Every summer your horse comes down with hives and such intense itching that their beautiful coat falls out in ugly patches. Your vet said it’s an allergy, but to what you’re not sure. It’s frustrating to watch your horse scratch on your fence posts and bite at their skin and not be able to help.
You could be dealing with insect bite hypersensitivity, or IBH. Insect bite hypersensitivity is a very real struggle for many equestrians. This itchy and often debilitating condition is difficult to diagnose and manage. Luckily, with the help of a high-quality barrier cream, you can get a handle on your horse’s hypersensitivity.
What is Insect Bite Hypersensitivity?
Insect bite hypersensitivity is an allergic reaction to the bite of any one of a wide number of bugs. It’s caused by the body’s inflammatory response to the saliva of several different insects. One of the more common forms of insect bite hypersensitivity is sweet itch. Sweet itch is caused by an allergic reaction to an antigen in the saliva of the female midge. The affected area is very itchy and can lead to hair loss and secondary infections. But it’s not just midges that you need to worry about. Mosquitoes, gnats, no-see-ums, black flies, stable flies, and horn flies can cause insect bite hypersensitivity as well.
There are two different types of IBH. Type 1 is when an immediate reaction occurs after the bite. Type 4 involves a delayed reaction from the insect bite. Both types have similar symptoms and can affect the chest, shoulders, mane, tail and midline of the abdomen. It can be a very serious condition with potentially debilitating consequences. A swarm of gnats can deliver up to 3,000 bites within an hour, and recovery from that kind of exposure can take three to six weeks. Be extra vigilant if you care for Northern European breeds, such as Welsh ponies, Icelandic and Shire horses as they may be predisposed to it.
Symptoms to watch for:
The first symptom you may notice is an intense itch. Your horse may bite at their sides and legs, or rub on any material within reach. This itching is not only uncomfortable for the horse, but it can also lead to secondary infections from open abrasions and injuries from the material they’ve chosen to scratch on.
Hives are soft raised lumps on the skin. They may appear like a donut, with a depressed center. If they are especially severe, they will burst open and leak a sticky fluid that needs to be cleaned regularly. Hives accompany your horse’s itching and may be localized or cover the body.
If your horse’s skin condition calms down over the winter months, only to pick back up in the summer heat, you could be dealing with IBH. Symptoms will only occur while your horse is exposed to the insect that causes the hypersensitivity.
One of the biggest issues with IBH is secondary infections. These infections occur because of the abrasive skin damage that results from the horse’s constant itching. The more they itch, the worse the damage becomes, creating a never-ending cycle that leaves your horse open to infection.
Also known as Lichenification, thickened skin is caused by chronic itching or rubbing. The irritation results in the growth of additional skin cells and magnifies any imperfections, such as cracks or wrinkles. The result is a bark-like or leathery appearance.
Severe reactions may occur, but only rarely and are limited to blackfly hypersensitivity reactions. Blackflies are known to have a salivary toxin that can result in respiratory distress, shock, and even death when the horse is bit multiple times.
How to Manage Insect Bite Hypersensitivity
The good news is that IBH can be managed. Depending on the severity of the reaction, your horse may have a long road to recovery. The length of recovery time hinges on how well you’re able to accomplish three things:
Full recovery requires that you eliminate or limit your horse’s exposure to the insect-breeding environment. While this may sound nearly impossible, it’s actually easier to accomplish than you might think. Try hanging netting specific to midges and mosquitoes around your barn’s entryways and over openings around your horse’s stall. A simple fan is a great tool to dispel midges and mosquitoes. These small lightweight insects are not very effective fliers so the air disturbance alone may be just enough to keep them away from your horse. Using a fly mask, boots and a rug provides a barrier between insects and your horse’s skin in the pasture. For the best protection, use a fly rug with a belly strap.
Encourage your horse’s recovery by using a non-toxic, non-irritating barrier cream such as Zarasyl. Zarasyl is a must-have for every equestrian’s first aid kit. When it comes to insect bite hypersensitivity, it’s important to break the cycle of itching and infection by nourishing your horse’s skin health. A high-quality barrier cream can help you do it!