The Role of Essential Oils in Equine Dermatitis and Mange

By Alix Loch

We are fortunate to live in the picturesque Lowveld region of South Africa with its vast open spaces, rolling hills and lush sub-tropical vegetation. Not far from our property wild horses still roam free in the veld. Closer to home, there are riding stables where the horses live about as idyllic a life as any of our equine friends could dream of. However, there is one major problem in this paradise - the summer midges who cause mange of the Sweet Itch variety. Come mid-summer, outbreaks of mange flare up amongst those horses and ponies who are hypersensitive to the protein in the saliva of the biting culicoides midge. There appears to be a strong hereditary factor in this susceptibility. The horses, who suffer from this reaction, constantly rub their manes and tails against trees, fences and walls. This can cause bald patches, open sores and thickening of the skin. Owners and grooms struggle to control this annoying problem with all sorts of heavy duty, mainstream preparations. Many of these are quite abrasive to the coat.

The last few years have brought an increasing interest in the veterinary application of those complementary medical therapies that have become so popular with humans. Aromatherapy, the therapeutic use of essential oils, is probably the fastest growing of these therapies. Extensive media coverage and increased availability of essential oils at retail level have caught the public's attention. Essential oils are known to play a key role in treating skin problems. It is understandable that horse owners wonder whether they can help control this summer irritant and ease the horses' suffering.

Loura, a friend, who owns a local stable and riding school, approached me about three years ago with this very problem. We at Vitahorse had been working on an Equine Aromatherapy Range which deals principally with behavioural problems, muscle stresses and strains, respiratory problems and hoof rot. Loura had been one of our best testers and her feedback had been of invaluable assistance in the products' developmental stages. Initially, I had been reluctant to produce a blend to treat skin irritations that would be available for widespread distribution. Skin problems are complex and it is always preferable to treat individually, where a proper case history is taken. However, it became a challenge to me to find out whether some theories I had about the treatment of mange were valid.

Loura's main problem was a Welsh/Arab cross gelding called Tit Willow. He was a good-natured fellow of thirty one, who was a firm favourite with the children at the Riding School. Indeed, every time he was sent into semi-retirement, he was recalled to work due to popular demand! Tit Willow had always been a martyr to mange. Come summer his face, neck and hindquarters were covered and he would rub himself until he bled.

My mission was to create a formula that would ease the skin irritation, have an antiseptic action on the sores that the excessive rubbing had caused, encourage hair regrowth and repel the midges that had brought about the problem in the first place. Quite a tall order!

This is how the product that Vitahorse now markets under the name of Dermasoothe was born. To Loura's and my delight the first blend we tried worked. Tit Willow was rubbed with Dermasoothe three times a day. After two days of application, the itching stopped. After a week, some hair regrowth was noted. After two weeks, the problem had cleared up.

Dermasoothe contains a blend of essential oils in a vegetable oil carrier. No chemical preservatives or colourants are used. Instead, high doses of Vitamin E are added as a natural anti-oxidant. We use the highest quality essential oils, distilled wherever possible from organically grown crops.

Dermasoothe contains, amongst other essential oils, Roman chamomile, lemon, juniper and tea-tree. Each of the essential oils used makes its own special contribution to the overall healing effect but we do believe that it is the synergistic combination that gives Dermasoothe its efficacy (their combined therapeutic action is more effective than the individual contribution of each oil.).

Roman chamomile is known for its soothing action on inflamed, sensitive skin. It has mild analgesic properties and acts as cicatrisant (an agent which promotes healing through formation of scar tissue). It encourages hair growth, and is one of the main essential oils used in the treatment of allergies. Chamomile's calming aroma helps alleviate stress.

Lemon, another antiseptic and cicatrising oil, is also considered an antidote to insect bites and a parasiticide (an agent that destroys parasites).

Juniper is an excellent depurative (purifying agent) and is used to promote the elimination of toxins. Possessing antiseptic and cicatrising properties, it, too, is a parasiticide. It is often used to treat acne, weeping eczema and dermatitis. Dr. Jean Valnet, pioneer of the French medical school of Aromatherapy, refers to Juniper's application to canine mange in his respected work, The Practice of Aromatherapy.

Tea-tree is currently the most popular essential oil for veterinary products. Its powerful antiseptic, anti-bacterial, anti-viral and fungicidal properties have earned it an international reputation for dealing with abscesses, cuts, wounds and fungal infections. It is a specific for the maintenance of healthy coat and hooves. Like lemon oil, it eases itching from insect bites and stings, as well as repelling insects and being a parasiticide.

Our subsequent work with Dermasoothe has shown that the best results come when it is applied to the affected areas two or three times daily. For optimum results it should also be applied to the lower flank, to lymphatic areas such as the chest, to the elbows, withers, croup, and on the underside of the neck behind both cheeks. (See Figure.) Patience and regular application are the keys to success. With cases of mange, don't expect a cure after two applications. A severe case of mange will not disappear after one application!

Since its initial success, Dermasoothe has been tested on many cases of skin irritations and mange with excellent results. This exposure has given us the opportunity to learn a lot about the role of essential oils in equine skin problems. Our conclusion is that essential oils bring the best results when the skin irritations have been caused by midge or lice infestations rather than allergic reactions to feed, or grasses. With urticaria (raised, itchy patches like hives), for example, Dermasoothe brings some palliative relief but will not clear up the problem. Generally, the earlier the case is treated the better the result. We also believe that the stronger the hereditary factor in skin allergies, the less likely for the problem to be resolved with aromatherapy. However, every horse must be viewed as an individual and we have cases on file which contradict our general findings and encourage trying essential oils whatever the background. The following are examples of this:




AGE: 7 years

SEX: Gelding

BREED: Welsh Pony

ACTIVITY: General Riding

PAST HISTORY: Used Aquila soap on horse's face to treat mange, and left it overnight on the face. Horse got burned badly.

TREATMENT: Owner used Dermasoothe three times and both burn and mange were resolved.

COMMENTS: Owner could not believe speed of results.

NAME: Montana

AGE: 12 years

SEX: Gelding

BREED: Hanoverian

ACTIVITY: Show jumper

PAST HISTORY: History of skin allergies. Had been on all sorts of medications for past 12 months. Had been put on rubber mats to treat for dust allergy. Scratched against everything. Used cortisone tablets. The allergy emerged in little knobs.

TREATMENT: Allergy responded well to Dermasoothe twice daily for two weeks.

COMMENTS: Good test of product efficacy because of past history.

At Vitahorse, we are firm believers in a fully holistic approach to equine care. Herbal products have much to offer for a variety of problems. Giving garlic on a regular basis in the feed acts as an effective insect repellent. We have also had excellent results in combining homoeopathy with our essential oil blends and have not found that the oils antidote the remedies. However, we have not used camphor or peppermint with homoeopathic remedies and these oils are generally considered to be the most incompatible with them. When essential oils have failed to resolve a situation, particularly with skin problems, we advise our clients to consult a homoeopathic vet for constitutional treatment.

Another interesting observation on using essential oils to treat mange is that it will clear up that season but next summer it re-appears again with the midges. Tit Willow, our original tester, was a case in point. The following two years after his successful treatment, he broke out in summer mange. Both times he immediately responded to Dermasoothe. He has recently been put to sleep at 34 due to cancer of the sheath, so we will never know whether the same thing would have happened the fourth season.

Dermasoothe is sold in South Africa and from March, 1999 is being distributed in the U.K. by Westgate. We have had excellent feed-back from testers in the Gulf and U.S.A. and look forward to finding the right North American distributor for the whole Vitahorse range. However, for the moment, I have the following suggestions for those of you who would like to bring relief to your scratching horses and ponies. Blend 10ml of tea-tree oil into 90ml cold pressed vegetable oil and apply as per the instructions given for Dermasoothe. If the irritation is bad, you can try 4ml of tea-tree, 2ml of juniper, 2ml of lavender and 2ml of Roman chamomile in 90ml of vegetable oil. Mild itching under the tail will respond to tea-tree alone but it will not be sufficient for more serious cases.

We look forward to hearing from readers about their experiences with essential oils and we give a warm welcome to any visitors to South Africa.

Alix Loch
Vitahorse Pty. Ltd.
P.O. Box 2915,
White River, 1240
South Africa
Fax: 27-13-7512612