Mite-y Itchy:  could your horse have feather mites?

Mite-y Itchy: could your horse have feather mites?

Cobs have never been more popular in the U.K. – and we’ve recently added a rather nice little gypsy cob to the Biteback herd.  With a vast amount of lustrous flowing hair, he’s a very attractive pony.  But the more hair there is, particularly around the legs, the higher the likelihood that you’ll have to deal with feather mites – and they can be very tricky to get rid of!

cob pony with feather mites

So we’ve been thoroughly educating ourselves with regards this tiny arachnid, and have also built up a good understanding of which products may help to prevent and manage an infestation.

1. What are they?

What we call ‘feather mites’ in horses are Chorioptic Mange mites - tiny, almost microscopic (0.3mm) relatives of ticks and spiders. They live on the surface of the horse’s skin preferring to inhabit the thickest part of the coat (which provides the most protection from dehydration) so are commonly found in horses with heavy feathers, however they can spread all over the horse’s body.

They feed on skin flakes, laying eggs on the skin’s surface as part of a 3-week life cycle. They can survive away from the horse - in bedding and on rugs - for up to 70 days.

 2. Why are they a problem?

Their feeding and crawling activity is what causes irritation to the horse and some horses are also allergic to their bites.

3. How can you tell it’s mites?

As the mites are so tiny, it’s not easy to spot them, so their presence tends to be flagged by a change in behaviour.

Most affected horses seem to experience intense itching which they react to by stamping and biting at their legs or rubbing them on field and stable furniture causing bleeding grazes and scabs.    

The surface of the skin becomes dry and scurfy - probably the skin’s protective reaction to shed the mites.  This build-up of dandruff is another symptom of a chorioptic mange infestation and it can be a breeding ground for fungi and bacteria, resulting in mud fever and associated conditions.

Occasionally, the build up of skin flakes can produce unsightly hard dry scaly areas of skin on the pastern, behind the knee (mallanders) or in front of the hock (sallanders) which continue to develop even when the cause is eliminated.  They are very difficult to remove once formed but can be softened and reduced by careful treatment.

4. How do you deal with them?

As always the best way to manage skin irritations is to focus on prevention.  So, if the horse isn’t too uncomfortable but you observe him rubbing one hind leg with the other and some flakiness or small scabs on the lower legs, then it’s worth trying hard to prevent the infestation getting worse. 

You need to attempt to eliminate the mites as far as possible which is easier with a minor infestation. A common action to help with this is to clip off the feathers or trim them down so application of products is easier.  Starting a daily regime early in the year is likely to reduce the need for clipping the feathers off later when things are out of control.

There isn’t a specific treatment available for mites unfortunately so vets will often use more than one weapon to hit the problem hard.  Wormers such as Ivermectin in Dectomax are often injected or taken orally at high strength together with a topical insecticide spray such as Frontline or Deosect.  They can both cause side effects so they are for short term use only.


Case Study 1: Moses – a minor infestation

Moses’ owner was concerned that he was rubbing his lower hinds on posts and causing scratches.  It was during the summer months, so she partly trimmed back his extensive feathers in case excessive heat was causing the itch. The scratching and rubbing continued, and she sought our advice on products.

At Biteback, we neither make wormers nor insecticides so we had to come up with a different approach. We do make insect repellents, but these repel rather than kill and she needed to eliminate the existing parasite.

We suggested trying our Sweet Relief cream which contains benzyl benzoate and anti-itch soothers. She applied generous amounts of the cream into the skin above and around the pasterns.  Within a few days, he was rubbing less but she kept applying for 2 weeks, after which the behaviour had completely ceased.

This Spring she is using Sweet Relief lotion which has a lower concentration of benzyl benzoate, on exactly the same areas, to prevent re-occurrence.  She will be spraying him once a day.

feathers on a cob, prone to feather mites

Case Study 2: Bea – a more developed case

Bea is my riding horse.  She foaled in May 2020 during a prolonged spell of hot dry weather. When she returned from the stud, she was covered in little scabs on her lower hinds where she had been rubbing.  I suspected it was mud fever – although she’d been on dry ground and there was no heat or swelling in her legs.  I cleansed the area with Sweet Relief Quick-Silver spray to prevent any microbes from entering the skin, then dabbed with cotton wool, then powdered with Flowers and Zinc antiseptic powder to thoroughly dry it.  Because there were little wounds and scabs all over, I also applied Sweet Relief Silver cream.  It contains benzyl benzoate (which, among other functions, forms a protective barrier on the skin’s surface) and silver ions which are antibacterial and antifungal.  It took around 2 weeks to completely clear it and it hasn’t returned.  I keep an eye open for leg rubbing but she’s been fine ever since.

Quick-Silver being applied to mud fever on horse

I now think she had feather mites, picked up at the stud, which were dealt with by the combination of sulphur in the powder and benzyl benzoate in the Quick-Silver spray and Sweet Relief Silver cream.  I think her immunity was low after foaling and her skin had become vulnerable so the Silver-based products were needed to support its return to health. 

We always try to help horses where we can with our safe, largely natural products but if you are concerned about your horse and the condition is not improving as fast as you hoped, contact your vet for the latest advice.

© Kath Shaw 2022

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