When a horse gets cancer, it is a sign that the normal mechanisms of its cell growth have changed and that the cells have proliferated in a manner that is unchecked and disorganized. This process forms cell masses that disrupt a horse’s body’s normal functioning and development.
If a cancerous growth develops deep inside the horse’s body, you may not realize it for a very long time. Gone unchecked, cancerous lumps can grow to large sizes and may spread into vital organs or press against vital organs causing shutdown and malfunction.
If a horse has a cancerous growth on or around its head, the tumor may cause the horse’s face to take on a distorted appearance. Tumors on or around the head can also interfere with your horse’s ability to breathe, eat, see and/or hear.
When cancerous growths begin to spread it is called metastasis. When a cancerous lump metastasizes, more lumps grow. This spread can be very difficult or impossible to get under control.
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What Are The Symptoms Of Equine Cancer?
Lumps that spread within a horse’s intestines can fill up large parts of the organs and/or spread to other organs. When this happens, your horse may begin to show signs of disease such as weakness, loss of appetite, listlessness, weight loss and many other generalized signs of illness.
A horse who has cancer of any sort may experience some or all of these symptoms:
- Your horse may experience unexplained bleeding from rectum, nostrils or other orifice.
- Your horse may suffer from chronic weight-loss and/or chronic diarrhea.
- You may notice that your horse coughs frequently and non-productively.
- Your horse may experience difficulty and pain when urinating.
- Lumps may appear and may change or enlarge.
- Your horse’s abdomen may become distended.
- Your horse may go mysteriously lame.
- Your horse may have bad breath.
- Lymph nodes may swell.
Cancerous growths can also cause behavioral problems. For example some cancer cells cause hormone imbalances that can disrupt the horse’s behavior.
If a mare develops ovarian cancer (equine granulosa) her body will produce too much testosterone. This can cause her to behave like a stallion and become aggressive to her pasture mates.
What Causes A Horse To Develop Cancer?
It’s hard to know what causes any specific type of cancer. It is believed that most cancers are connected with genetic mutations, but research is still underway to refine and improve this belief.
When researchers are certain that genetic mutations actually do cause cancer and understand how they do, it will be much easier to predict, control and treat these cancers.
Evidence suggests that melanomas are caused by genetic mutations that are linked with the color of horse’s skin and coat. Gray horses tend to develop melanoma.
These nodular masses are often found in areas of skin that have little or no hair. For example around the dock and under the tail. Other common locations include in the eye and behind the jaw.
Occasionally a melanoma will develop inside the horse’s throat or abdomen. Melanoma is not always a cause for concern. Sometimes these growths stay very small and do not cause any symptoms or problems. Occasionally they will spread throughout a horse’s body and become very invasive and dangerous tumors.
How Can You Prevent Cancer in Horses?
Steps for prevention are uncertain, but it only stands to reason that you would follow the same common sense protocols you would in preventing cancer in yourself. Be sure that your horse has a healthy, wholesome lifestyle and diet.
Avoid exposure to known carcinogens. Keep your horse well protected from excessive sun exposure.
Establish a regular schedule of veterinary visits so that your vet will have the best chance of catching cancer in its earliest stage. Early-stage diagnosis is key to successful treatment.
How Is Cancer Diagnosed In Horses?
For example, if your vet notices that your horse has swollen lymph nodes, he or she may want to take a biopsy or perform cytology on the lumps or nodes to find out if they are malignant.
If your vet notices that your horse is suffering from diarrhea, distended abdomen or other evidence of gastric distress, he or she may want to perform an endoscope, an ultrasound or a radiograph to locate any intestinal tumors.
Unexplained lameness, dry cough, bad breath and/or difficulty and pain with urination also indicate internal problems that may be quite serious. If your vet notices any of these symptoms, he or she will want to perform a radiograph.
How Can Horses Be Treated For Cancer?
Treatments that have worked in humans suffering from cancer often work quite well in horses with cancer. Just as with people, treatment of cancer in horses may involve surgery, vaccines and drugs and even radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
Just as with human cancer, treatments for cancer in horses are constantly developing. For example as we learn more and more about genetics, cancer treatments based in gene therapy are becoming more of a possibility for both people and horse’s.
One treatment for melanoma that has been very successful involves the creation of a vaccine based on the horse’s own tumor tissues. Small instances of skin cancer can sometimes simply be kept under control through the use of topical creams and ointments.
Some horse owners have had success using cannabis oil as a topical treatment for melanoma.
Treating Equine Melanomas With Cannabis Oil – A Case Study
The treatment you and your vet choose will depend on a number of factors, including the type of cancer, your resources and your vet’s preferences. Some vets believe that surgery should never be performed because it may trigger cancer to metastasize.
Other vets favor fairly noninvasive surgical techniques such as laser surgery to deal with small tumors. Work closely with your vet to determine the right course of action if your horse develops cancer.
Frequently Asked Questions
In a way, cancer can be inherited because some of the traits that predispose a horse to cancer may be inherited. Albino horses, those with very pale skin, blue eyes and/or a “bald-faced” marking (consisting of a very wide blaze with white skin) are more likely to develop skin cancer, so while the cancer itself is not handed down, the traits that may lead to it are.
Excessive sun exposure can cause skin cancer in any horse (or any living being). Some gray and pale skinned horses are more susceptible to cancer caused by ultra-violet radiation exposure, but there is also a metabolic component to the development of cancerous tumors in some older gray horses. It has to do with the presence of various types of proteins that play a role in lipid metabolism.
– Sarcoid tumors can appear anywhere on a horse’s body and are common in all types of horses. Horses who have been infected with bovine papillomavirus seem to develop them at a fairly great rate. These tumors are usually easy to remove if detected early.
– Melanoma, which causes tumors on the head, genitals and under the tail is frequently seen in gray, white and albino horses.
– Squamous cell carcinoma, which affects a horse’s eyes is very common, especially in blue-eyed horses.
No, this type of tumor may also indicate the presence of Squamous cell carcinoma of the urethra. If superficial tumors and ulcers are also accompanied by behavior such as flank biting, kicking, whinnying in distress and excessive sniffing of droppings, suspect this condition and seek veterinary care right away.
Many types of cancer in horses can be easily treated by one-time surgical procedures. Naturally, if your horse has a small tumor that can be easily removed, you do not need to have the animal euthanized. Still other horses have superficial cancers caused by sun sensitivity that can be treated and managed with sun block creams, UV blocking masks and/or blankets and other simple measures. Follow your vet’s advice to care for a horse with this sort of diagnosis. If your horse has a late stage, metastasized, serious and/or painful form of cancer, both you and the horse are better off if you make the brave and responsible decision to have the horse euthanized. Caring for a horse with serious, terminal cancer is heart-breaking, complicated and extremely costly and can have the end result of causing your horse a great deal of suffering. You and your horse are far better off taking a few days to spend quality time together and then letting go before your horse has suffered too much. When you are ready, you can use your resources and your heart to provide a good home to another horse.