Dealing With Bug Bites

My 30-year-old Shetland pony has suffered from allergies due to no-see-ums every year. He will scratch till he’s raw back to his shoulders. What do you suggest’

Horse Journal Response

No-see-um (Culicoides) allergy is frustrating. The best analogy is flea-bite allergy in dogs, where the bite of a single flea can set them off in nonstop, frenzied scratching. A variety of treatments are suggested, with the bottom line being that none of them is 100% effective.

Densensitization (allergy shots) has been tried with very variable results. Part of the problem is that more than one antigen in the saliva is probably involved. Another problem with interpreting the results is that it may take a full year of the injections before any improvement is seen, longer to see peak results. If the horse requires steroid therapy to control symptoms in the meantime, it could interfere with the injections working.

On the medication end, corticosteroids and antihistamines can be tried. Antihistamines are not usually 100% effective. Corticosteroid therapy will work, but it carries the risk of considerable side effects including laminitis and infection.

Feeding large amounts of freshly ground or ground stabilized flaxseed may help, a pound a day for an 1100-lb. horse (if your Shetland pony weighs 300 pounds, feed about 4.5 oz.). If the pony is getting fresh pasture, this isn’t likely to be of much use since the omega-3 fatty acid level in grass is already high.

Adequate intakes of vitamin E, selenium, zinc and copper are important in reining in inflammatory responses and immune-system balance. Spirulina (see back page) helps some horses (blocks histamine release and shifts immune system away from allergic reactions), and many different herbs have been found to have some antihistamine or antilekotriene (an inflammatory cytokine targeted by some newer antiallergy medications) activity or can shift antibody production away from allergy-mediating antibodies. Even chondroitin sulfate, the joint supplement, has recently been found to effectively block allergic reactions experimentally. Unfortunately, all of these things are largely untested in horses.

Barrier methods, blankets, belly guards and boots, can provide a lot of relief and often make the difference when a horse is helped, but still symptomatic, after other treatments. Fly sprays effective against other biting insects have little effect on Culicoides.

Camphor/menthol are much more effective products to try, and the flies are so tiny that a physical barrier at skin level works very well, too. A layer of Vaseline with Campho-Phenique and Calm Coat (, 888-396-0004) will help. Use ?? teaspoon of Campho-Phenique and ?? teaspoon of Calm Coat mixed into a small jar of petroleum jelly). You can also use a layer of Vicks VapoRub, which both repels them and physically prevents them from biting. An added bonus is that the aromatic oils block the pain and itch sensation.

Twitching And Tremors

I have a two-year-old Hanoverian filly who has developed tremors or twitching of her shoulder muscles, just above the elbows on both sides. I owned her mother for six years and she did the same thing once, while lactating for this filly. At the time my vet said it was a symptom of low calcium and to just add alfalfa to the mare’s diet. This solution worked beautifully.

Unfortunately, the alfalfa isn’t working with this filly. I have also tried adding electrolytes, magnesium, and tying-up supplements. We have done a blood panel and CBC, which came back normal. The vets are stumped. She’s been having these symptoms for about two weeks.

She is a well-bred full Hanoverian, so there is no chance of HYPP. The twitching will go on for hours, but it’s usually active in the morning. She’s not in distress and is eating and playing normally. She has been on a balanced low-starch feed with flax added and lives outside with plenty of grass and hay. She is not in work. Are you famiiliar with this condition’ How should it be treated’

Horse Journal Response

Twitching is a nonspecific symptom. There are several possible nutritional factors, but you won’t be able to figure out which is possibly involved without knowing the levels in the rest of your diet. Magnesium is certainly a suspect, especially if this has started since she has had access to young spring pastures. Early growths of grass are high in potassium and low in magnesium. How much she might need depends on how much she is already getting from her feed, hay and grass. If you were feeding it at the same time as the high-calcium alfalfa, the calcium could block any magnesium effects. If you haven’t tested blood vitamin E and selenium levels yet (not done with a routine chemistry), we would definitely do that as well to rule out problems there. Vitamin E and selenium are closely involved with muscle health.

Helmet Safety

Is there any information that shows that one type of helmet provides better protection then the others’ I know they are all ASTM/SEI-approved, but are there any extra safety protection features when you comparing one helmet to another’

Horse Journal Response

We’ve asked this question many times ourselves, and we addressed it in our April 2008 article on helmets. We cannot find any solid scientific evidence that any one helmet is better than another. It may well be, but the SEI (who tests the helmets to be sure they meet or exceed the ASTM requirements) will only tell folks that a helmet ”passed.” This means it did meet or exceed standards, but not which.

Doubling Up Supplements

I just found out my barn doesn’t monitor the feeding of the three horses living outdoor full-time, including my two horses. Their grain and supplements gets dumped in outdoor feeders and then the staff then walks away per instructions of the barn owner. I was livid when I found out and am now feeding the supplements myself at night when I go ride. However, I’m at the barn 4-5 days/week and never skip two days in a row.

My question is this: Can I feed two days supplement together’ Is it a waste’ Can it harm the horse’ I use a ration balancer, a fat supplement, selenium, vitamin E, salt, a joint supplement, Source and garlic. I am looking for another barn, by the way.

Horse Journal Response

Doubling up on a fat supplement might not be a good idea since you don’t want undigested fat reaching the large intestine, and doubling up salt might throw the horse off eating (keep a free-choice salt block available). Extra salt will also be promptly urinated out. Doubling up on a joint supplement is probably of no benefit, and it’s questionable for vitamin E (it’s not well stored in the horse’s body). Otherwise it’s OK to double up on minerals now and then until you can get your situation sorted out.

While most mineral s are absorbed in the small intestine, with the possible exception of calcium they are also absorbed from the large intestine. What you feed spends about six to eight hours in the stomach and small bowel but two days or longer in the large bowel.

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