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Fire Ants and the Florida Horse

For anyone planning on living in Central Florida or really most of the Southern United States with their horse(s) understanding insects is a must. The Fire Ant is one of the insect dangers that can have a devastating affect on your horses.
The Fire ant was introduced in the United States from Brazil in the 1930's through the Port of Mobile Alabama. There are actually over 280 species of "Fire Ants" and most of these are not particularly harmful. The species Solenopsis invicta which is in the South is very invasive and harmful. Fire ants only bite to get a grip and then sting (from the abdomen) and inject a toxic alkaloid venom, (piperidine). This sting is immediately painful and then becomes a raised puss filled blister.
Although most discussions on fire ants concern people being bitten, they can cause extensive injury to horses that are in an infected pasture or paddock. The fire ant colonies build large underground nests that can be seen from the surface as a mound of freshly sifted dirt on top of the grass. Depending on the time of year and if it has rained the mound may be easily visible or the mound may be virtually invisible. This invisible period is when they are the most dangerous to both horses and humans. These ants are very aggressive when anything disturbs their territory and they will send hundreds of ants out to attack the intruder. They also tend to wait until they have thoroughly covered their victim and then they start stinging all at once. This is why they can do such extensive damage to a horse. A horse will unknowingly stand on a mound or will roll in a mound that they are attracted to by the cleared earth. A horse can have several hundred ants on them before feeling the first sting and then has very little ability to remove the ants once they start stinging. The initial pain of the sting is really the least of the problems for the horse. The itching that follows is where the problem starts. The itching starts the rubbing. The rubbing can then cause the stings to become infected raw sores.
OK, know that I have scared everyone from ever moving to Florida….. Let's talk about living with Fire Ants.
Treatment for a horse that has been bitten by fire ants includes external treatments and antibacterial medicines. Keeping the bites clean and the horse from rubbing are the two key treatments. A number of different treatments are available. There is an ointment called "swat" that works on smaller areas, or a topical steroid cream (hydrocortisone). Rubbing alcohol can be used on smaller areas, or a solution of bleach and water will disinfect the bites. A whipped mixture of egg whites and salt (spread over the affected skin for 30 minutes, removes the pain). Hosing the horse down with cold water will give immediate relief ( and can be done as often as needed) and if done immediately will also remove any ants that are still on the horse. Antibiotics may be needed if the bites become infected.
You MUST treat your pasture with a fire ant insecticide. The bad news is that there isn't anything that is 100% effective and I am unaware of any natural preventative or environmentally safe products. Maybe there is something, but I have never heard of them. The "good old day" remedy was to pour gasoline on the mound and light it on fire. Yes, it did kill a lot of ants but there are a number of products sold in the local garden stores that are more effective and much less dangerous. They all make claims of their effectiveness and I am not trying to plug or sell one over the other. I use bait called "Amdro". It is sprinkled around the mound (not on the mound) and the ants take the ground up corn looking insecticide down to the Queen and when she dies in theory the colony dies. The reality is that it never kills the whole colony and in a few days a new mound will appear a few feet away from the one that was treated. Treating these mounds several times is the key. Control is the essential idea with fire ants. You will never completely get ride of them all. The one down side to these baits is that they look like corn and should be used when the horses are off the pasture for a few hours.
I hope this is helpful and not to depressing. Please feel free to contact me at John@JRHenline.com or visit my web site at www.JRHenline.com .
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RE: Fire Ants and the Florida Horse

Posted by: paul wheaton
Date: Jul. 26, 2010

For a natural way to control ants, try diatomaceous earth.   Spread it on the ground to contrl any bug, and feed it to your horse to control internal parasites. 

RE: Fire Ants and the Florida Horse

Posted by: Steve
Date: Mar. 12, 2011

I cringed while reading this, sounds painful. I don't know if fire ants are a problem in PA, but I have a friend who works at a horse stable. I will forward this blog to her so she can be prepared if this need arises. Thank you.

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