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Common allergies in horses

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Just like us, horses can be allergic to many different things. It’s important for horse owners to be able to recognise the signs of an allergy and take steps to prevent and treat it. But what are some of the common allergies in horses and how can we spot them?

What can horses be allergic to

Many things can cause an allergic reaction, from pollen to medicines. An allergic reaction is just the body overreacting to a stimulus and releasing histamine, causing an inflammatory response. But the allergies most horse owners have to keep an eye out for are airborne, parasite or in their food.

Airborne allergies

Airborne allergens are caused by things in the air what the horse inhales. Typically these are:

  • Mold
  • Dust
  • Pollen

But other things in the air can also cause an allergic reaction. Horses who inhale allergens usually show respiratory or skin reactions, but usually not both.

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Parasite allergies in horses

Possibly the most common type of allergy found in horses is a reaction to insect bites, specifically the insects saliva. The most severe of these, sweet itch, is caused by midges. But any type of biting insect can trigger a reaction and horses might only be allergic to one type and none of the others.

Contact allergies

Contact allergies is usually the horse having an allergic reaction to something we are putting on them, usually chemicals. Horses can be allergic to certain shampoos, fly sprays and even washing detergents. It’s why it is recommended to patch test new products on our horses 24 hours before we want to use them so we can check for a reaction.

But horses can be allergic to other things they come into contact with too. Horses have been known to be allergic to wool and neoprene saddle pads. These should be fairly easy to identify as the reaction is nearly always localised to where it touches the horse and will appear within 24 hours of it being there. They might also have a reaction after brushing past certain plants either out in the field or out hacking.

What foods are horses allergic to

Food allergies to natural foods, as in food found in many horses diets, are rare. This is partly due to most reactions to food don’t count as a true allergy, more an intolerance. They are also very hard to diagnose, especially when horses are turned out to graze. But if you suspect food to be the cause of any problems in your horse, it is worth trying to avoid it even if it isn’t a true allergy. Horses with a food allergy usually show signs in their skin or show gastric symptoms.

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What are the signs of allergies in horses

Respiratory Signs

Respiratory symptoms of allergies in horses are similar to hay fever in humans, an allergy to pollen.

  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Laboured breathing

Skin Signs

One of the most common signs a horse is suffering with an allergy is a skin reaction. These could be anything from bald patches to lumps what can turn into sores, especially if they are itchy and the horse is scratching them. Their location on the body can also help you identify what the cause might be.

  • Respiratory causes tend to show on the face and head.
  • Contact causes tend to be localised to where it touched the horse.
  • Different insects tend to bite in different places: face, groin, flank.

Gastric Signs

Gastric symptoms are less common with allergies, typically only seen with food allergies. They can range from gas, to diarrhoea and colic. Some horses will also suffer with weight loss or not being able to put on weight.

Other Signs of allergies in horses

  • Watery eyes
  • Headshaking
  • Generally being a bit off
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Treating allergies in horses

Prevent where possible

As with many things, prevention is better than treating allergies in horses. If you can identify what it is your horse is allergic to, then you can take steps to avoid them coming into contact with it. For example, if your horse is allergic to a certain shampoo you can stop using it on them and any horses who might use their grooming kit, rugs etc. If they are allergic to insect bites or certain airborne allergens it is impossible to completely prevent them coming into contact with them. But you can still take steps to reduce exposure. Wearing a fly rug can help prevent them being bitten. Changing their bedding, steaming hay and turning out at different times can all help to reduce their exposure to airborne allergens.

Treating reactions in horses

If you can’t fully prevent your horse coming into contact with what causes their allergy, or if you can’t identify what it is they are allergic to, you can treat the symptoms of the allergy. For skin reactions you can apply creams and ointments designed to soothe itchy skin. Many vets will recommend feeding horses antihistamines for minor allergies, especially for horses who seem to have pollen allergy at certain times of the year. Depending on the allergy and how bad the reaction, a vet may also recommend steroids or other medication to help manage the condition.

Last Updated on 08/10/2021

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