Food sensitivities and food allergies are becoming more prevalent, but by following some basic guidelines and knowing the risks, your equine companion may never have to experience a single allergy.
What are the symptoms?
The obvious symptom of skin allergies is itching. This is often accompanied by hives, which are little raised bumps similar to what a bee sting would make. In severe cases, hives are so numerous that they gather together, causing welts. In extremely severe episodes, the horse itches so badly that he rubs and bites his skin until it is raw and/or bleeding. Fly sprays, lotions, etc., help somewhat, but for the most part, these simply make the owner feel better, not necessarily the horse.
It’s the cause that’s important, not the trigger
Why are some horses allergic to things that are normal for them to be around? Flies, mosquitoes, and bug bites in general are “triggers” that make things worse, but they are not the cause of allergies. The cause is from “within”. We have ruined our soils with salt fertilizers, and have over-vaccinated, over-medicated, over-sugared, and over- or incorrectly supplemented our horses so much that their bodies do not know which way to turn. Things seem worse today than when I graduated from vet school in 1980, just 27 years ago. Our horses appear to be weaker now. It’s because we have bombarded them with so many vaccines, chemicals, pollutants and toxins. The consequence is a critically out-of-balance immune system. It’s simply in “hyper” mode, not really knowing what it should react to, so it simply starts reacting to everything.
Nutrition is critical
The best way to prevent or treat allergies is to look at what the horse’s body is getting too much of, or not enough of. Vitamins, minerals and salt are equally important, but so is the source. Minerals are often full of heavy metals like aluminum and lead. A professor at the University of Kentucky sent me some information stating that lead and cadmium are frequent contaminants in minerals. White salt is chemically made for other industries, not just for horses, as most believe. It is even kiln dried and bleached. The horse’s body has to handle all of this extra “junk” one way or another. Nutrition is critical but it can be confusing. What should you feed your horse? What should you supplement? The list of questions is long. But you don’t need a PhD in nutrition to know how to take care of your horse’s needs properly. It truly is not that difficult. All you need to do is keep the basics in mind and leave the rest to nature.
Basic #1: More fat, less sugar
Horses generally don’t get enough fat from their diets, but get far too much sugar. Essential fatty acids are a must in allergy horses. In my opinion, the best source is oil, but not just any oil. It must be crude, unrefined and non-hydrogenated. I prefer soybean, or even better, GMO free (nongenetically modified) soybean oil. Processed vegetable oil and corn oil are practically useless except for calories. Unfortunately, most horses today are getting way too many processed fats from commercial feeds. I feel this is perhaps the single greatest cause of metabolic issues in general.
Basic #2: Supplement with vitamins and minerals
Our soils and the foods grown in them simply can’t provide a balanced diet anymore, so supplementation is often needed. However, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “complete” feed. There are just too many variables. Each horse should be supplemented individually, especially the allergy horse. Remember, though, that many minerals and vitamins are manmade. Even worse, many of them are another industry’s “leftovers”. Even free choice minerals can be a problem because we only have a vague idea of what our horses need. When we make a mineral mix, we are simply guessing. Even with a free choice mix that contains massive amounts of this and that, horses simply over-consume what they don’t need while trying to get what they do. What they need might not even be in the mix to begin with. In addition, manmade blocks and mixes are missing critical elements, including micronutrients like rubidium, molybdenum, palladium, cesium, and strontium, which are vital for problems like allergies, COPD and even cancer.
Basic #3: Plenty of antioxidants
It only makes sense to help the body in every way possible to get rid of the “junk” that it’s exposed to day in and day out. Antioxidants do just that! The best analogy I’ve heard is that the foreign substances the body is exposed to every day cause it to “rust”. Antioxidants prevent the rusting. The beneficial effects of antioxidants are often immediate in allergy horses, especially when really good products are used. However, antioxidants are a lot more than just a little vitamin A, C and E, as so many products tout. I prefer more bioavailable sources like grape seed, bioflavonoids, quercitin, beta carotene, garlic, and even ginseng.
Basic # 4: Support the gut
Pretty much everything starts in a horse’s gut so it’s important to add supplements that support the intestinal tract. One substance in particular that I see great results from is arabinogalactan, a product from the western larch tree. It is a tremendous immune modulator that boosts the immune system if it needs it, or quiets it, as with hyper-allergy states. Beta Glucans, Echinacea, mannose, oligosaccharides, and direct fed microbials are also a must. N-Acetyi-L Cysteine is an awesome source of sulfur as well.
Basic # 5: Don’t short the salt
In my opinion, the major factor in allergies is the misuse of salt and mineral blocks. Horses are not lickers so they can’t get what they need from blocks quickly enough. Free choice natural sources of salt and minerals will help your horse’s allergies improve drastically. The “salt based” fertilizers used today often confuse the horse. The potassium they contain literally tricks the horse into thinking he has plenty of salt already because the potassium ion is so similar to sodium. When this happens, he quits eating salt, or if he only has access to blocks, he can’t even get as much of what he needs. This places a major metabolic stress on the system that can result in many problems. The obvious ones are “tying up” and what we generally think are electrolyte problems. The least obvious, but most dangerous, is a massive change in gut bacteria that can result in laminitis, abortion, and allergies. When you take away typical “manmade” salt and mineral blocks, and replace them with natural sources, many allergies and other problems go away. It is amazing what nature provides! Remember, the most important thing you can do for your horse’s health is to provide a natural source of salt and minerals.
Although we are still learning about allergies, the above basics are very important. Certainly keeping flies and pests away is critical, but don’t overuse the chemicals or you could be adding fuel to the fire. For long term treatment, the actual cause of an allergy must be addressed rather than just the symptoms. Often, if we provide the body what it needs, it will heal itself!
Are vaccinations linked to allergies?
Most allergies start in the spring, when most vaccinations are given. Is there a connection? If you have an allergy horse, please look at this issue carefully. Vaccinations are often filled with preservatives like mercury and foreign protein. Continually “sensitizing” with foreign tissue via vaccines is a big part of the allergy syndrome. Ask yourself: “Are all these vaccinations really needed year after year?”
Consider homeopathy for the crisis stage
Sometimes, allergy horses are really bad by the time I see them. For these acute situations, consider using homeopathy: Nux Vomica at a 30C potency, (giving four to six times the number of pellets suggested for an adult) just once. I use this to sort of “detox” the system. I will often use Apis and Rhus Tox on alternating days to ease the itch. Stop when there is any positive response from the body, physical or mental, to allow the body “do its thing”. Any more dosing might interfere with this process. Preferably, a full case study should be done by an experienced homeopathic practitioner, in which all factors and symptoms are evaluated before any remedy is prescribed.