Horse Health

Getting Smart on Sarcoids

You’re grooming your horse one afternoon when you notice a rough, hairless area has appeared on his jaw.

Is it ringworm? A wart? Though these are certainly possibilities, it’s most likely a sarcoid—a (typically) benign form of skin tumor.

Young to middle-aged horses are most prone to sarcoids, and common sites of development include the abdomen, sheath, ears, muzzle, or around the eyes. They might also appear at the site of an old scar, especially on the legs.

Six types of sarcoids exist in horses:

Occult: Flat, hairless patch 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.

Verrucous: Wart-like and scaly but extend deeper into the tissue than an occult sarcoid. Often irregular in shape and multiple lesions may appear.

Nodular: Lumps form under the skin and often appear shiny. Nodular sarcoids vary in size, some growing to more than five 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: Rare, but most aggressive type of sarcoid. This type of sarcoid spreads 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.

So what causes sarcoids?

It depends on who you ask! Many experts believe sarcoids are caused by the bovine papilloma virus (found in cattle) or a related virus and are transmitted by flies and other biting insects.

Others contend that sarcoids can develop when the immune system becomes compromised.

Either way, the immune system seems to play an integral role in the development of sarcoids, so it makes sense to address this first when looking at sarcoid treatment. Reducing stress (such as strict training regimens), providing a high-quality, forage-based diet, and even adding immune-supporting herbs such as echinacea or spirulina may help. 

Although sarcoids are known for being difficult to treat cosmetically, there are several options available. Alternatively, if the sarcoid isn’t large and doesn’t seem to be causing a problem, you may want to just leave it alone. Some go away on their own, in time.

If the sarcoid is large or if it’s presenting a problem (interfering with tack, for example), you will likely want to treat it cosmetically, however. The sooner, the better, in most instances.

Standard Sarcoid Treatments

Equine sarcoids have traditionally been treated with the following:

  • 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
  • commercial topical agents

“Not-So-Standard” Treatments

If you’d rather take a more natural or less invasive route, there are alternative treatments for sarcoids, including:

Bloodroot Extract: Derived from the Sanguinaria plant and marketed under the name Xxterra, this topical agent is an economical option for sarcoids when more expensive treatment isn’t feasible. (A note of caution: this treatment 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 can help as an immune-booster, among other things. Turmeric may be fed (often combined with coconut oil or flax oil and black pepper) or applied topically (as a paste).

Thuja: Homeopathic treatment that can be given internally. It also comes in a cream, which can be applied to the sarcoid itself.

Fluoride Toothpaste or Mouthwash:  While this method of treatment is controversial, some horse owners swear by it.

Keep in mind is that not every treatment will work for every type of sarcoid. If in doubt, seek the advice of your veterinarian.

This content is for informational purposes only. Please contact your veterinarian if you have any questions regarding the health of your animals. 


About the Author

Casie Bazay is a freelance and young adult writer, as well as an owner/barefoot trimmer and certified equine acupressure practitioner. She hosts the blog, The Naturally Healthy Horse, where she regularly shares information on barefoot, equine nutrition, and holistic horse health. Once an avid barrel racer, Casie now enjoys just giving back to the horses who have given her so much. Follow Casie at www.casiebazay.com.