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this article has been edited and approved by karen coumbe mrcvs, h&h’s veterinary advisor since 1991.
sweet itch in horses can be described as pruritus – the technical term for itchiness, the unpleasant sensation that leads horses to bite, scratch or rub at their skin. sometimes the sensation is so strong that horses will cause severe damage to themselves or their environment, while in extreme cases, horses cannot tolerate tack on their skin, let alone a rider.
although poorly understood, pruritus is known to result from the stimulation of special nerve endings and receptors in the skin. in the horse, the three main factors inducing itchy skin are ectoparasites (such as biting insects), allergies and some infections. biting insects including lice, midges, black flies and horse flies can trigger cases of pruritus, but milder cases can occur simply as a horse sheds its coat.