Last Updated on February 19, 2022 by Allison Price
Feathers can look amazing, especially when they are in flight. They can pose a problem for those who care for horses with this amount of hair. Infestation with heel mites is one of these problems. Chorioptic mange, or simply ‘itchy heels’, is a condition that can be caused by these mites. To relieve itching, affected horses may rub their legs on anything they can find or stamp and chew their lower legs.
The mange mites can’t be seen by the naked eye. They can be found in the feathers and cause severe itching. They live on the skin’s surface and feed on skin flakes. Sometimes, the mites can cause the crusts to move and make it appear that the horse is “walking dandruff”. The mites love thick feathers because they trap scurf and dead skin cells.
It can be difficult to treat mites as they are common in horses’ environments. Other horses in the herd and on the yard could also have mites, even though they don’t show any symptoms. Early signs are important as they make it easier to treat the problem. This is especially true if trimming the legs is avoided. To prevent the problem from recurring, it is possible to treat all horses that have had contact with one of the mite-infected horses.
It can be challenging to treat mites, especially if they have been present for a while. This often means that multiple steps are required. As early as possible, it is worth seeking veterinary advice. It is possible to save the horse’s legs if caught early enough. However, once mites are established, you will need to remove the feathers so that any treatments can penetrate the skin. Next, wash the horse’s legs with an anti-parasitic shampoo. It is a good idea to use a specialized shampoo that gently removes dead skin and crusts. This will help catch any mites that have emerged since the last application. The mites can be killed by oral treatment with ivermectinwormer, which is administered at the same time as the shampoo.
You should consult your vet if the horse continues to itch after treatment. There are currently no licensed veterinary products for horses that can treat mites. However, vets will often recommend using a topical antiparasitic product such as Frontline or Dectomax by injection. This product is approved for use in cattle and sheep. This method has been proven to be very effective in decreasing the mite count throughout the horse’s entire body. This treatment will require your horse to receive two injections every three weeks. Then, you’ll need to repeat the process at three-week intervals. Your vet will determine if additional injections are needed at three- to six-month intervals.
It is very important that your horse’s stable environment be kept clean. Your horse may pick up mites from the surrounding environment again if the bedding is not removed. Straw can be too harsh for horses suffering from sore legs and mites. You might also consider rubber matting or shavings. Avoid deep litter beds that can get warm and humid.
Caroline Heard is the Assistant Centre Manager at Belwade Farm Rescue and Rehoming Centre. She explains how they deal with horses with heel mites.
“Belwade Farm residents have lovely feathers, such as our cobs or heavy horses. However, these beautiful hairy legs can conceal underlying issues so it is important to keep them well maintained. Horses will sometimes rub their legs together and scratch their heads with their teeth to indicate a problem. However, it is important that you regularly inspect the hair for signs of an issue.
The faster you treat an issue, the better it will be. Keep your feathers and skin clean to avoid mites from flourishing.
We will treat mites on horses by cleaning their legs. If the infestation is severe, we may trim the hair to make it easier to clean and treat the problem. We apply a topically applied ivermectin to the affected areas. This should be repeated every 10-14 days.
Our vet will administer a course Dectomax injections to horses that are not responding to treatment, or who, like many other cases, is unhandled. This is the most effective treatment, and feathers can be kept intact. However, they should be cleaned as often as possible.
“If mites are discovered in one horse, it is probable that other horses will also have them so we take extra precautions when we discover a case. It is not easy to control mites. Multiple treatments may be necessary. There is always the possibility of reinfection because they live in the environment. While bedding can be changed, we often see new mite cases on pasture. This is why it is so important to be vigilant and get rid of any mite infestations as soon as possible. “