What is SSRD?

This condition, more commonly known as ‘sweet itch’ or ‘summer dermatitis’, is a delayed allergic reaction to the saliva of the Culicoides midge which can affect horses, ponies and donkeys of any age or breed.  The allergic reaction causes the animal to itch primarily the mane, base of the tail and sometimes the belly.

Midges live in herbage, like moist decaying vegetation for breeding, and favour dawn and dusk for feeding.  They do not like hot dry conditions, but mild damp winters enable the ‘biting’ season – generally March to October - to start earlier and alternating periods of dry and wet during the summer can increase midge breeding habitats.

What causes SSRD?

Not enough is known about what predisposes a particular horse to sweet itch but there are genetic and environmental factors.  Animals susceptible to sweet itch generally develop the condition before they are 4 years old and remain afflicted for life.  However, it has been known for a horse to be moved to a different part of the country and for the condition to ease or disappear completely, particularly if the new environment is open with little vegetation and if there are prevailing winds.  Sweet itch can affect all breeds however there are some which appear more susceptible than others – such as Icelandics, Fjords and some Arabs, although it is rare in Thoroughbreds.

What are the symptoms of SSRD?

The major symptom of SSRD is itching, predominantly of the mane, including the forelock, the base of the tail and the tummy, which starts as soon as the midges appear, typically from April through to October.  The first signs will be broken hairs and signs of rubbing, often at the base of the tail.  If no action is taken to manage these first signs incessant itching will remove the hair and, in many cases, result in raw and bleeding areas.  Horses with chronic sweet itch can end up with ‘elephant skin’ ridges along the line of the mane and at the base of the tail.  Some horses can become fractious and hard to handle when midges are around, stamping their feet and being ‘bargy’.

How to manage and treat SSRD?

“Prevention is better than cure” – this old expression sums up the best way of dealing with sweet itch, wherever possible try and avoid the animal being bitten in the first place.

  • If possible stable crucial periods ie dawn and dusk
  • Keep water sources clean
  • Use a fly bonnet and/or specialist midge rug making sure you put the rug on the horse very early in the season ie before he starts itching
  • Don’t try to stop the horse itching by electrifying fencing, this might save your fencing not being able to alleviate the itching will drive your horse mad.  Use rubber off-cuts or Scratch n All pads to pad the stable door to limit the damage to mane and tail.
  • Keep your horse’s mane and tail very clean washing frequently with an antiseptic shampoo
  • Use topical repellent products particularly those that contain coconut oil and aloe vera to help keep the skin soft and supple and help with skin repair.
  • Try herbal supplements containing linseed and Brewers yeast as research has shown that these two herbs, along with buckwheat, can help increase the skin’s resistance to allergic reactions

There is anecdotal evidence that feeding susceptible animals a diet rich in Omega 3s and 6s, Vitamin B and amino acids will help maintain the skin in good condition and help its resistance to insect bites.

Related products:


Reference material: