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Skin Allergies: Sweet Itch


My horse is 15 years old and gets sweet itch every spring. Someone told me to add Flax seed meal to her diet. I’ve started that this winter. I’ve noticed a growth in her mane and tail but was wondering if it will help with the tail rubbing this spring. Thanks any info will be appreciated. – TB, Virginia

Dear TB,

That “someone” was right on! Several research studies have shown that supplementing horses with omega-3 fatty acids—such as those found in flax seed, chia seed and fish oil—actually reduces inflammation in the body. One study specifically looked at horses with “sweet itch” and found a significant decrease in allergic skin response when they were fed flax seed.

As you know, “sweet itch” is an allergic response to the bite of the insect Culicoides, also known as midges or no-see-um’s. “Sweet itch” is therefore an insect bite hypersensitivity (IBH), the most common kind of allergic reaction in horses. In addition to causing horses to rub their manes and tails, “sweet itch” causes itching, crusting, hair loss and thickened skin on the dorsal (back) and ventral (belly) midline of the body. Other insects with different feeding patterns cause an allergic skin response in different parts of the body, such as the head or legs.

While the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are many and definitely include supporting skin health, MSM is another supplement you may want to consider for your horse. This potent antioxidant also has research supporting its use in allergic conditions, specifically recurrent airway obstruction or “heaves.” It is also reported to support the immune system as well as resilient skin, coat and hooves.

Don’t forget other measures to help your horse such as insect control (sheets with belly bands, keeping your horse inside at dusk and dawn, and eliminating standing water, decaying vegetation and manure from your property). Also, consider supplements with ingredients like garlic, brewer’s yeast, apple cider vinegar and others that are intended to deter insects. In the meantime, enjoy your horse’s improved mane, tail, coat and hooves, and the other benefits of omega-3 fatty acids!

Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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Posted in Ask the Vet, Skin, Coat & Hooves

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13 comments on “Skin Allergies: Sweet Itch
  1. shelly wyles says:

    How much flax seed (oil or seeds) to you add to the diet?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Thanks for your question Shelly. We recommend that you consider a supplement with multiple sources of Omega 3 fatty acids, such as SmartOmega 3 Ultra which contains flax seed, fish oil, and chia seed. When supplementing with flax seed only, most horse owners feed 1-3 ounces per day.

      SmartOmega 3 Ultra:

  2. KL says:

    My 13 year old QH has had scratches on his right hind leg on and off for years. We have used multiple products over the years and have obsess on clipping, wrapping and treating, etc. We have had many vet appointments and all have had us try something different. These scratches have never spread to his other legs and have not made him very lame. We have had little success with healing this and recently a friend told me to check with smart pak, maybe we can attack it internally with supplements? He does require a small dose of daily steroids during the spring and summer, as he is allergic to bug bites. I am unsure which biting bugs he is allergic to. Also the right side of his sheath also swells in the colder months, but also doesn’t seem to cause him pain. As I read my comment, I guess he really is a mess, are any of these things related and can I solve them without breaking the bank?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi KL – Thanks for your question! It looks like you already spoke with Paige from our Customer Care team and she was able to speak with you about a recommendation for your horse. If we can be of any additional assistance, please let us know!

  3. Well, skin allergies are very common in horses specially in summers and that’s why proper care and cleanliness becomes more important for the horse in summers.

  4. kimberly says:

    Hi i have a 15 year old grey mare and it seems like within the last month or so her skin has exploded. Ive tried MTG, calm coat, shes even on flaxseed oil. I dont want to have to start giving her shots of dex because i know its not good on their liver. What should i do???

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Kimberly, we’re sorry to hear about your mare! I would first recommend that you have a conversation with your veterinarian about the sudden change in your mare’s skin and coat health.  You’ll definitely want your veterinarian involved to make sure there is not something more serious going on with your horse. It’s fantastic that you’re already doing some good things to support her, like flax seed oil. One other product you could consider is called APF (Advanced Protection Formula):  It contains adaptogenic herbs that help support normal immune function, and they may be nice to have on board as you deal with this skin condition. – Dr. Lydia Gray

  5. Angela says:


    I have a 8 year old Quarter Horse who my vet says is allergic to insect bites, he didn’t really tell me anything to specific to do to help with the scratching and hair loss that we deal with in the summer time other than keep her clean because she wouldn’t be so “appealing” to the insects. So, I keep her sprayed down with fly spray, we have put garlic in her grain, now I am reading about this flax seed.. Is this something that is in a supplement or do you give them just straight flax seed and where do you get flax seed?
    Thanks =)

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Angela, thank you for asking! You are correct that additional omega 3 fatty acids in your horse’s diet could be a very nice addition to support him during bug season. It sounds like you’re already doing a great job of selecting ingredients to support you horse with the garlic and omega 3’s, and if you’re looking to simplify your supplement program you could consider a single product that contains all of the ingredients you’re already feeding individually. Take a look at SmartBug-Off ( which provides garlic, omega 3’s, as well as additional ingredients to support skin health. This may be a nice option for you and your horse! – Dr. Lydia Gray

  6. Nyssa says:

    I have a 15 year old gelding Irish Sporthorse, who has always had allergic reactions to bugs, since I’ve had him. When they bite his reactions range from small hives to swelling of the bite site through the vein of where the venom traveles. At one point, I was given Dex, vet prescribed, and past two years using SmartBug-off with no change. He already has a fly mask, as his ears bleed from the gnats, and boots for other reasons. I started him on SmartOmega3 in November after discussing with an expert from smartpak on his dullish coat as well as my disappointment in the bug-off. Any other suggestions besides getting a fly sheet I could try (budget considering)? Thank you

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Nyssa, thanks for your question, and I’m sorry to hear your guy has such a hard time with the bugs. It sounds like he can be pretty sensitive, so I would continue working closely with your veterinarian in terms of his management and to determine what (if any) prescription medications might be appropriate. A fly sheet is a great idea for such a sensitive horse, and I’d encourage you to check out the fly sheets with are made with fly repellent included in the fabric. A couple of my fellow riders have had excellent results with these sheets, so that may be a worthwhile investment for you and your horse. I would also encourage you to check out this Ask the Vet, which has a few more ideas:
      – Dr. Lydia Gray

  7. Ann Kerr says:

    Can Smart bug Off be taken in conjunction with Smartflex Senior Pellets? Is it too much MSM?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Thanks for your question, Ann! Yes, SmartBug Off Pellets and SmartFlex Senior Pellets are generally appropriate to be provided together. They will offer a total of 14,250mg of MSM per day. For an average size horse (about 900-1200 lbs) it is typically recommended to provide a maintenance serving of anywhere from 5,000 mg-15,000 mg of MSM per day. While there is no established upper safe limit for this ingredient, per customer feedback as well as industry standards, the general recommendation is to feed up to 20,000 mg per day, as higher levels are unlikely to provide any additional benefits for your horse.

      – Dr. Lydia Gray

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