Mites: how to treat them in horses

Find out how our experienced teams tackle this itchy problem in affected horses and ponies.

Find out how our experienced teams tackle this itchy problem in affected horses and ponies.

Whilst feathery legs can be quite spectacular – particularly when seen in full flight! – they can present their own challenges to those caring for horses with that amount of hair. One of these challenges is infestation with heel mites. These mites cause a very itchy condition called chorioptic mange or, put more simply, ‘itchy heels’. Affected horses often stamp and chew their lower legs or rub on any object they can access to try to relieve the itching.

Can you see if a horse has mites?

Mange mites aren’t visible to the naked eye. They are found in the feathers, making the horse incredibly itchy and causing scabs to form. The mites live on the surface of the skin and feed on dead skin flakes. Sometimes the crusts they produce can move – making it seem as if the horse has “walking dandruff” . Thick feathers provide an ideal environment for them, as the dense hair traps scurf and dead skin cells, as well as protecting the mites from any extreme temperatures.

Treatment can be tricky, as mites are often widespread in the horse’s environment – and other horses in the herd or on the yard may be harbouring mites even though they aren’t showing any symptoms. It is important to watch out for early signs of the problem as this makes treatment more likely to be successful, especially if clipping the legs is to be avoided. If there are groups of horses housed together it might be necessary to treat all horses who have contact with the one known to have mites, to prevent the problem recurring.

How do you treat mites in horses?

Tackling mites can be difficult, especially if the problem has been there for some time, and often requires multiple steps. It is worth asking veterinary advice when the symptoms are first seen as early effective treatment is important. If caught soon enough, it may be possible to avoid clipping the horse’s legs but once the mites have established it is usually requires removing the feathers to allow any treatments applied to the surface to penetrate right down to the skin. The next step is usually to wash the horse’s legs thoroughly with an anti-parasitic shampoo. A specialised shampoo which gently removes any crusts/dead skin is really helpful, as it allows active ingredients to get right down to the skin. It’s important to repeat this around 10-14 days later as this will catch any mites which have hatched since the first application. Oral treatment with ivermectin wormer given at the time of the first shampoo will help kill the mites.

If the horse is still showing signs of itching after this treatment you will need to seek vet advice. Currently there are no veterinary products licensed to treat mites in horses but vets often recommend a topical antiparasitic application such as Frontline or a product called Dectomax given by injection which is licensed for use in sheep and cattle. This has proved very effective in reducing the number of mites across the horse’s whole body. If this treatment route is chosen, your horse will probably need two injections at a three-week interval to begin with, followed by further injections at three to six-month intervals as determined by your vet.

If your horse is stabled, it’s really important to keep the stable environment very clean. Make sure all bedding is removed and the stable thoroughly disinfected at each stage of the treatment – otherwise your horse could easily pick mites up from their surroundings again. Straw can also be too abrasive for horses with sore legs, as well as harbouring mites, so it might be best to consider using shavings and/or rubber matting. Deep litter beds which can become warm and humid should be avoided.

How our Belwade team tackle feather mites

Caroline Heard, Assistant Centre Manager at our Belwade Farm Rescue and Rehoming Centre, explains how the team tackle horses with heel mites:

“A lot of our residents here at Belwade Farm have beautiful feathers such as our cobs and heavy horses but these wonderful hairy legs can hide underlying problems so it is vital they are well kept. Some horses will let you know that there is a problem by stamping or rubbing legs against each other and scratching them with their teeth but it is important to regularly check through the hair for any signs of a problem.

“The quicker you can start to treat an issue the better and the more likely it is that you can control it and possibly prevent the spread to other horses. Keeping feathers and the skin beneath them clean helps to prevent creating an environment where mites can thrive.

“We also find that hyperkeratosis (Mallenders and Sallenders) can cause similar symptoms but need a different treatment – which is why it’s vital to be sure what the cause is before attempting any form of treatment.

“If a horse does have mites we will clean the legs and if it is an extensive infestation then we may clip the hair away to allow us to be able to more thoroughly clean and treat the condition. We use a topical ivermectin solution (available from your vet) that we paint on to the affected areas; this needs to be repeated after 10-14 days.

“If we have a horse that is not responding to treatment or is, as in many of the cases we deal with, unhandled and we are unable to safely treat their legs then our vet will give them a course of Dectomax injections. This tends to be the most effective treatment and has the benefit that feathers can be left intact, although they should be cleaned regularly if possible.

“If mites are found in one horse then it is likely that others will have them too so we are extra vigilant when we find a case. Unfortunately mites are notoriously difficult to treat and several treatments may be needed to be able to get them under control. As they are in the environment there is always the risk of reinfection – bedding can be changed but we often see new cases on pasture, which is why it’s so important to be vigilant and tackle any suspected mite infestation as quickly as possible.”

If you suspect your horse may have mites and you’d like further advice, do just give us a call in office hours on +44(0)1953 497238 and we’ll be very happy to help.

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