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“Sweet Itch,” also known as “summer itch” or summer seasonal recurrent dermatitis (SSRD), is an allergic reaction to the Culicoides biting midge or “no-see-um” gnat, although horses can develop allergies to other insects such as black flies, horn flies, and stable flies. Insect hypersensitivity like “sweet itch” is the most common allergy in horses, and it is also the most common cause of itching. Certain breeds like Welsh ponies, Icelandic horses, and Shires are predisposed to the condition meaning it is likely inherited, although any horse can develop “sweet itch” when exposed to the saliva and insect parts of various species of Culicoides.
As with all allergies, a large part of the success is due to preventing exposure to the offending agent. In the case of “sweet itch”, that means reducing the numbers of Culicoides in the horse’s environment and preventing these midges from landing and biting. Every effort should be made to remove manure, control standing water, and eliminate plant waste. Barriers are an effective method to keep gnats off horses and range from full body sheets (including neck protection), fly boots, and fly masks; to stall fans; to mesh curtains on all barn openings to keep insects out of the stable. Also remember that no-see-ums prefer to feed at certain times of day, like dusk, so consider keeping affected horses inside while the sun goes down.