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  • Writer's pictureDrs. Luedke

Why is my horse so itchy?

The last few weeks have been brutal with respect to allergies; both humans and horses! Hives, swollen eyes, tail rubbing... you name it! Some horses unfortunately have allergies year round. Read on to find out more about what you can do to help!

To understand why certain therapies work, we first have to review why allergies occur. Much like in humans, horses can have an overzealous immune response to allergens (pollens, dust, etc) and they produce high levels of histamines in their bodies. These histamines cause the outward signs we see- runny eyes, itchy skin, hives, big insect reactions, and even coughing. Controlling the immune response and maintaining a healthy histamine level is key!

When we first evaluate a horse for allergies, we determine if it might be a contact allergen vs. inhaled vs. ingested allergen. Maybe a new hay batch has set off several horse's allergies and they are coughing and have swollen eyelids. Or, you've used a new shampoo or fly spray (even natural ones) that has caused a skin reaction. Even switching laundry detergent can cause a reaction under the saddle pad or exercise boots. Honing in on what is causing the reaction is the first big hurdle.

Most times we eliminate new changes (i.e. switch back to old shavings if they recently changed) and give them anti-inflammatories in the form of NSAID's or corticosteroids to help with the immediate discomfort of allergies. Then we work step-wise to see what was the trigger. In horses that have a history of recurrent allergies we will run an allergy panel from a blood sample to determine the horse's reactivity to over 87 allergens, including grains, hays, environmental allergens, and insects. Hyposensitization therapy is a great way to manage chronic allergies in horses.

In cases where a horse has allergies during certain periods of the year, we will precede these times with an allergy supplement in their feed, 6-8 weeks before the expected exposure time. Platinum Skin and Allergy and Kinetic Vet's EquiShield SA are great options that include quercetin as a natural anti-histamine. For those on a tight budget, 1/2-1lb of stabilized ground flax seed daily will help as it provides a healthy Omega 3:6 balance. Alternatively, medications such as Cetirizine, Hydroxyzine, or TriHist Granules may also be beneficial during periods of stress. Just remember, you cannot show at most rated shows if your horse is on these medications.

So how does this all relate to coughing and Inflammatory Airway Disease (IAD)? These horses have a component of high histamine levels and triggers to pollens and dust that are unavoidable in most situations. Controlling the environment (stabling outside for superior air quality) and soaking or steaming hay to reduce dust and molds are great management factors that may help these horses. Once the horse has had heaves for several years, they can be very difficult to manage and require multiple treatment modalities to control their flare ups.

Do topicals work on horses? Yes, depending on location. For a horse rubbing their tail, we make sure they are up to date on deworming and that pinworms are not present. Then, prescription ointments like Quadritop can be very helpful in calming the skin. Medicated shampoos and ointments can help mild cases - Kinetic Vet's product line is specifically designed for horses!

Hopefully this helps you navigate the frustrating waters of watching your horse itch endlessly all summer! As always, if you have specific questions please contact our clinic at (303) 578-5898 and one of our veterinarians can assist!

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