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News About Facial Cancer in Horses

New Cancer Treatment

Research into a new treatment for squamous cell carcinoma-the most common facial cancer in horses-shows great promise.

As summer gets under way, many horse owners begin the annual campaign to protect their white-faced horses from the sun. Sun damage causes many different problems-issues ranging from a simple case of sunburn all the way to skin cancers. In fact, squamous cell carcinoma-the most common cancer affecting the eye and ocular structures of the horse-is directly linked to sun exposure. It can be painful and difficult to treat, so forewarned is forearmed! Prevention is the best way to avoid facial cancer, though new treatment options are on the horizon and show promise.

Researchers at the University of Missouri have developed a novel approach to periocular squamous cell carcinoma (PSCC), and preliminary results suggest that it may be more effective than current treatments, require fewer treatments/shorter hospital stays and result in the preservation of eyelid function.

PSCC is a malignancy that commonly affects horses on the cornea, third eyelid or eyelid. Predisposing factors include breed (Belgians, Paints and Appaloosas most commonly), poor pigmentation (light-colored skin) and exposure to ultraviolet light at high altitudes or frequent sun exposure.

Big-picture benefits to the research, which was funded by Denver-based Morris Animal Foundation, are that the treatment may work on this type of tumor in other locations and in other species.

Prevent Sunburn and Photosensitivity

How do you know if your horse is getting sunburned? It looks just like sunburn on your own skin: pink or red skin with blistering, cracking and peeling. Horses with large white patches on their faces or heads are at higher risk, but white socks or bellies can even allow the sun to burn. If the skin underneath the white hairs is pink, be proactive to prevent sunburn in that area.

Some industry groups report that certain weeds may also increase photosensitivity in horses. These include white clover, ragwort, St. John’s wort, field bindweed and buckwheat. These weeds contain alkaloids that can cause liver damage and, subsequently, high sensitivity to the sun. Maintaining a weed-free pasture can avoid exposing a horse to additional risk.

New Treatment

If your horse develops squamous cell carcinoma there is hope. With funding from Morris Animal Foundation, Dr. Elizabeth A. Giuliano at the University of Missouri has developed a new therapy consisting of surgical resection and local photodynamic therapy.

Giuliano and her team first surgically resect the tumor and then apply laser light immediately after injecting a photodynamic drug into the tumor bed. Results from the study thus far show that the combined therapy prevents tumor recurrence, requires fewer hospital visits and has better cosmetic outcome for horses with cancer.

Case Example

Dixie, a 17-year-old gray American saddlebred horse, was the first horse to receive the treatment after her owner, Rose Pasch of Cuba, Missouri, and her veterinarian noticed that Dixie’s eye was irritated. The cause was a troublesome growth. Although it was removed the next day, the growth returned.

“It kept getting bigger, and she’d keep her eye closed all the time, and it would water, Pasch said. “It was hurting her.”

Pasch took Dixie to Dr. Giuliano, who was conducting a pilot clinical trial for PSCC treatment.

“Because the skin on the face of the horse tightly adheres to the underlying bone, we can’t do certain reconstructive procedures,” Dr. Giuliano says. “Without retaining the eyelid, it is virtually impossible to save the eye.” Losing an eye is disastrous for horses, who rely heavily on sight, especially in work and performance situations.

A standard procedure for treating PSCC cancer in horses is surgery followed by chemotherapy or freezing or burning off the tumor, but results are mixed. Using this innovative new treatment, Dr. Giuliano injects a photoreactive chemical into cells surrounding a tumor and treats the area immediately with a laser light.

“Dixie was the very first horse I treated with this therapy,” Dr. Giuliano says. “I did have to treat her twice, but she’s been cancer-free for five years.” For the pilot study, Dr. Giuliano treated 20 horses with the new therapy with encouraging results. She received a second grant to further study the treatment and is currently evaluating PSCC’s ability to inhibit tumor recurrence over time.

Thanks to Dr. Giuliano’s research, and other equine health projects being funded by Morris Animal Foundation, the hope is that Dixie-and many horses like her-will march on for many years to come.

Posted by MAFon October 26, 2009.

Categories: Animal studies, Cancer, Equine health, Horse diseases, Horse health


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Submitted by helen larkin at: May 19, 2012
hi my horse has been diagnosed with a squamus carsonoma in his throat.He is 19 yrs young and I am desperate for a cure can you shed some hope?
Submitted by Annabelle Cabella at: February 3, 2011
It's great to see the results of a lot of research and experience help everyday trainers like us train horses to avoid facial cancer and other skin cancers by prevention and with very clear steps to avoid suck a terrible disease.
Submitted by bridgette davis at: October 11, 2010
i have a senior project and need more information on horses
Submitted by laura williams at: July 24, 2010
I have just had my 8 year old paint mare treated with Photodynamic therapy at NC State Univ. She was treated on 7/23/10. This was her second visit within 11 months. Her first treatment was a biopsy of eyelid mass and conjunctiva w/ cryosurgery of eyelid mass as her procedure. Our hopes are higher this time. This is my second horse I have had at NC State with squamous cell carcinoma. I have also had another horse at Nc State with same diagnosis. Another 8 year old paint with only one of his third eyelids being non-pigmented. State removed his third eyelid a couple of years ago and have had no further problem. These horses are not related. I only have 4 horses 3 of which are paints and have had to only visit our vet. school with squamous cell carcinoma. My e-mail is if you would like to contact. Thank You