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Skin Inflammation/Itching
(Scientific Name: Pruritus)



Equine dermatitis is a general term that covers inflammation of the horse's skin. It can cause major discomfort to the animal; and in extreme cases, may lead to the equine mutilating itself in an effort to seek relief from itching (pruritus) by scratching or biting the inflamed skin.  Equine dermatitis affects the overall health and sheen of the animal's coat and can turn the horse's skin red and flaky.  In extreme examples, the horse may lose hair and its inflamed skin may ooze fluids.


Equine dermatitis includes the following conditions:


Equine Recurring Summer Dermatitis or Sweet Itch: Connected with seasonal allergies caused by insect/midge (fly) bites. If your horse experiences symptoms only during the summer months, it is likely that a seasonal allergy is to blame and will likely occur each summer.


Pastern Dermatitis: An inflammation that affects the lower legs below the fetlocks - also known as scratches, mud fever, mud rash or greasy heel. This condition is primarily due to excessive moisture or wet-dry cycling in the equine’s environment.


Granulomatous Dermatitis: Skin inflammations linked to various parasites, fungi and bacteria.


Vesicular Dermatitis: Sometimes called blister disease.


Fungal Dermatitis: Commonly known as ringworm and caused by a fungus. Many of these skin inflammations are contagious to other animals and even humans. Brushes, tack and other equipment can spread this inflammation. 


Equine dermatitis is usually caused by one of three things: an allergic reaction, a fungal infection or an infectious bacterium. While horses are particularly sensitive to hives and rashes; insect bites are the main cause of itchiness. In extreme cases, horses cannot tolerate tack on their skin, let alone a rider.


The general causes of equine dermatitis include:


» Bacteria;


» Viruses;


» Allergies/sensitivities to insect bites, especially those of midges (flies); lice, black flies and horse flies;


» Allergies to chemicals, such as soap or shampoo;


» Sun sensitivity or photosensitivity, may be from eating plants that trigger skin lesions;


» Respiratory or digestive disorders;


» Exposure to moisture for long periods such as standing in a muddy field or a wet stall - constant moisture penetrates delicate skin causing inflammation, redness and ulcerations; 


» Dirty surroundings which provide an ideal breeding ground for infection; and


» Too much bathing; even a monthly bath can be too much for many horses.


The most extreme form of pruritus (itchiness) is called equine cutaneous  pythiosis. Once only found in tropical climates, it has now been diagnosed as far north as Washington State. Pythiosis is caused by a fungus-like organism and begins as a disease of the skin and tissues immediately beneath the skin. Many horses with pythiosis are so afflicted by itching that they will mutilate themselves while seeking relief.


Without proper treatment, pythiosis can progress into the underlying tendons, joints, and bones, and can prove fatal for horses. The prognosis is dependent on how early the pythiosis is detected and how aggressively it is treated.


SYMPTOMS: Equine dermatitis can exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:


» Itchiness from hives (urticaria) and rashes;


» Scratching and wounds stemming from this action;


» Rubbing;


» Chewing and/or biting in the affected region; 


» Papules (skin bumps from parasite bites);


» Scales and crusts;


» Loss of sheen in the horse's coat, damage to coat and hair and areas of hair loss;


» Thickening of skin; and


» Formation of open sores.




Recommendations for avoiding dermatitis from insects include: minimizing a horse's exposure to insects and using long-lasting fly repellent; keeping horses stalled (if possible) or for them to have access to shaded shelter during the peak hours of insect activity; aiming a fan at the stalled horse, as many biting insects cannot fly effectively in the air currents and avoiding insect havens like standing water, manure piles or cattle.


An effective treatment for dermatitis will combat the cause as well as offer the horse relief from the itch. Steroids are often successfully used to combat the irritation, but unless they are accompanied by treatment for the underlying cause of the itching, a relapse weeks or months later is likely. Antihistamines can cause drowsiness and should be used with caution, but they remain safer than steroids and may give reasonable relief. There are currently no antihistamines specifically licensed for use in the equine, so many of those used by vets are human drugs.


Additionally, soothing emollient shampoos, solutions and sprays can be used to effectively alleviate the itching. Cold water hosing and ice packs applied to the irritated areas can also lead to an improvement. Witch hazel is also recognized as having a non-specific cooling effect on itchy skin. Shampoos containing colloidal oatmeal and oils such as borage, tea tree, evening primrose and aloe vera can also offer soothing effects. Sulphur is one of the oldest anti-pruritic products available and has positive benefits in relieving the itch as well as treating some types of dermatitis. 


In the event of a biting and sucking lice, experts suggest anthelmintic ivermectin, which can kill both types of lice. There are also lice treatment shampoos specifically formulated for horses.


Integrative Medicine


Not all animals can use all natural remedies; allergic reactions to oils
and/or herbs and digestive problems are possible.
A natural remedy is not a substitute for veterinary care.


 In addition to any pharmaceuticals your veterinarian may administer, there are also many effective alternative therapies providing treatment and relief to equines with dermatitis.


In the case of pruritus (itchiness), a dietary supplementation is often recommended with flax-based omega fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce allergic reactions to insect bites. Homeopathic formulations with ingredients such as arsenicum alb, rhus tox, sulphur, graphites and thuja have been specially formulated for equine dermatitis.


Additionally, you may want to try herbal coat enhancers containing herbs such as nutmeg, paprika, celery seed and fenugreek. These combinations will help new hair growth. Bioflavonoids (plant-based, antioxidant substances), have also been scientifically shown to help maintain animal tissue health. Antioxidants from green tea and grapes can also have particularly beneficial effects in preventively or therapeutically helping to repair damaged tissue. 


Skin Inflammation/Itching
– Equine Products –

(Reference: Veterinarians’ Desk Reference)

(Live Link)





ABC’s Plus1

2 oz bid

Supplies vitamins, minerals, and support for healthy GIT micro-organisms.

Noni fruit6,15

powder: 3-4 tsp bid
fruit leather: 2-4 two-inch sq pieces

Source antioxidants, fatty acids, amino acids.

Chia Booster (chia seeds)19

1 scoop bid

Stabilizes membranes, source Omega 3 fatty acids.

Flax/Hemp Oil

3-6 tbsp sid

Anti-inflammatory; stabilizes membranes.

Long Dan Xie Gan Tang (Gentiana Combination)14

4 tsp bid

Clears Damp Heat, inflammation and itching of the skin, temperamental.


To help you quickly find the right Integrative Medicine formulas and manufacturers to help treat your dogs, cats and horses, please refer to the Veterinarians’ Desk Reference
(Click Here)


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