Sarcoids in Horses
Nearly every day, I get at least one e-mail or comment on the blog from someone asking me about a specific issue his/her horse is having. While I love helping people and horses out, I don’t always know the answer to every question! However, I did recently get a question about sarcoids in horses and this is something that I have dealt with before. Since they are so common, I figured a blog post on the topic was in order.
Once upon a time, I fancied myself a horse ‘trainer’ (not really, but I took on the challenge of starting three horses under saddle). Not long into training, one of those young mares developed a rather large and unsightly sarcoid on the side of her mouth. I remember trying a few different topicals, but nothing seemed to work. So I took her to my vet and he removed the sarcoid surgically. The sarcoid did not come back while I owned the mare (which was for several more years), though I hear the reoccurrence of surgically-removed sarcoids is rather high.
Sarcoids are the most common skin disorder reported in horses and many veterinarians consider them to be a form of skin cancer (though almost always benign). Often appearing in young to middle-aged horses, these skin lesions commonly appear on the abdomen, sheath, legs, ears, muzzle, or around the eyes. They can also develop at the site of old scars, especially on the legs.
Sarcoids can vary quite a bit in their appearance and there are six types that exist in horses:
Occult: Flat patch where hair is absent with a grey, scaly surface. Often circular in shape and commonly confused with ringworm. Usually occur on the face, neck, or between the back legs.
Verrucose: Wart-like and scaly but extend deeper into the tissue than the occult sarcoid. Often irregular in shape and multiple lesions may appear.
Nodular: Lumps form under the skin and often appear shiny. These vary in size–some being more than 5 centimeters in diameter. Usually occur around the groin and eyelids.
Fibroblastic: Usually a fast-growing, fleshy mass which can begin as a complication of a skin wound. Often become ulcerated and “hang” on a stalk. Can become extremely invasive into the surrounding skin.
Mixed: A variable combination of two or more types of sarcoids, often appearing at different times, forming a “colony”.
Malevolent: Most aggressive type of sarcoid. These spread through the skin and even along lymph vessels, with cords of tumor tissue interspersed with nodules and also ulcerative lesions. Can become large and difficult to manage.
What Causes Sarcoids?
Like many equine issues, the cause of sarcoids is debatable and it depends on who you ask! Many say that sarcoids are caused by bovine papilloma virus (virus in cattle) or a related virus and are transmitted by flies and other biting insects. Others say sarcoids occur when the immune system becomes compromised. Either way, the immune system definitely seems to play a part and it would be wise to address it when you’re looking at treatment options.
So, once you’ve realized your horse has a sarcoid (or maybe several), what can you do about it? Sarcoids are known for being difficult to treat and if they’re small and not causing a problem for the horse, you may not want to treat (at least, cosmetically) them at all. Some sarcoids actually go away on their own with time. Other sarcoids, however, can grow quite large and present a problem for the horse. These are the ones that will need treatment– and the sooner, the better usually.
There are several standard treatments for sarcoids which have a moderate success rate:
- radiation therapy (most successful, but most expensive);
- cryotherapy (freezing with liquid nitrogen);
- surgical removal;
- laser therapy;
- litigation (tight band place around sarcoid to cut off blood supply);
- injection of immune stimulants (either systemically or into the tumor);
- chemotherapy drugs (i.e.–Cisplatin); and
- topical agents.
I also wrote an article a few years ago about electrochemotherapy for treating sarcoids.
Natural and ‘Not-So Standard’ Treatments
If you’d rather go with a less invasive and/or more natural (or not so standard) treatment, there are a few of these which also have reportedly worked for some horses:
Thuja: This is a homeopathic treatment which can be used (given internally) and there is also a thuja cream which can be applied to the sarcoid itself.
Bloodroot Extract: This topical agent, derived from a flowering plant called Sanguinaria and marketed under the trade name Xxterra, is an economical option for some small sarcoids and larger sarcoids for which more expensive treatment isn’t an option. (A caution with this treatment though–it works by ‘burning’ the sarcoid cells and can be somewhat painful for the horse).
Turmeric: This spice is known to be helpful for a variety of conditions and works as an immune-booster, among other things. You may not find a lot of information on using turmeric for sarcoids out there in Google-land, but I’ve seen countless photos and stories on the Facebook Turmeric Users Group about the success of feeding turmeric to horses with sarcoids. It can also be used topically in a paste.
Floride Toothpaste or Mouthwash: This method of treatment is controversial. Some horse owners swear by it while some professionals warn of the dangers of using something like toothpaste and forgoing ‘real’ treatment. However, if you’re interested in learning more, you might check out this story.
Mushroom Matrix: Creating from a blend of medicinal mushrooms, this is a newer and lesser known treatment for sarcoids which also acts by boosting the immune system. You may want to use it in combination with another treatment. This brand is one of the more popular products.
Please keep in mind that not every treatment will work for every type of sarcoid. If in doubt, seek the help of an experienced veterinarian. Sarcoids are not life threatening, but they can be uncomfortable for the horse, especially if they develop around sensitive areas such as the mouth or sheath.
Sources and Further Reading: