Your Turn: Don’t shrug off melanomas

Some eighty percent of grey horses will get melanomas at some point during their lives. Megan Rust shares a cautionary tale.

Top photo: Wikimedia Commons

From Megan:

One day, as you groom your grey horse, you notice some pea-sized lumps on the bottom of his dock where the skin is hairless. “Hmm, what are these?” You run your fingers over them, but since they are just lumps with a seemingly harmless feel to them, you shrug it off.

Don’t shrug it off. You have had your first encounter with melanomas, and as soon as you find some, you should speak to your vet about having them removed. Grey horses are prone to melanomas: 80 percent of them will get some during their life. If your vet is the one who shrugs them off, go to another vet for a second opinion, and keep going to vets until you find one who agrees to having the melanomas extracted. Even if it’s just one, get it taken care of.

Here is what the New England Equine Medical and Surgical Clinic has to say about melanomas, part of this larger article:

“Often, veterinarians do not pursue treatment of melanoma in horses because they are believed to be benign and slow growing, because the lesions have become too large, because the lesions are close to major blood vessels or important structures, or because there has been extensive invasion into local tissues. One study states that all dermal melanomas should be considered as possibly malignant and treated as such.

“A single isolated lesion may not cause problems on its own initially, but should be removed because it will likely grow larger, and early excision prevents later ulceration and complications associated with larger size. It is harder to do a large radical excision than to do an early small incision. Unlike with equine sarcoid, early surgery does not worsen the malignancy with melanoma. Excision of the melanocytic nevi and the benign dermal melanomas has been described to be curative.”

I wish I’d know this five years ago, when I saw the first melanomas under the tail of Juno, my grey CWB mare, who was 12 at the time. I mentioned them to the vet I was using then, and he suggested using cimetidine–the human medicine Tagamet–to get rid of them. I gave Juno three cimetidine pills three times a day, and the cimetidine seemed to halt the growth of the melanomas, but did not get rid of them. Then, after some months, the cimetidine stopped working and the melanomas began to grow again.

By then I had begun seeing another vet, who suggested an herbal supplement that he had seen work on the melanomas of several horses. I used that for about a year. The second vet said that if the herbal supplement didn’t work within three months, I should have the growths removed. That was the first time I had heard of excising the melanomas, and I wasn’t sure about doing surgery in an area so septic as a dock or an anus, areas where the melanomas often strike. At any rate, the herbal supplement seemed to be shrinking the melanomas at the time, so I didn’t think any more about it.

Then the herbal supplement stopped working, also, and the melanomas were growing and spreading. A third vet–clinic partner of the second–said that we should excise the growths, the sooner the better. I read the article from which I included parts here, and I was convinced that the removal was the best thing to do. Juno is scheduled for a laser debridement of the melanomas on the 22nd of August, and I hope that the melanomas can be eradicated, not just slowed, by the lasers.

So, again, if you find melanomas, even if it’s just one, I advise having them removed. When they’re tiny, it’s easy to cut them off with a scalpel; when they are larger, like Juno’s, you have to take them off with a laser, at much greater expense. You do not want to let them get so big that they cannot be extracted. The large ones can cause a myriad of problems that can result in the death of the horse.

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Megan Rust lives in Port Townsend, WA, after spending 44 years in Alaska, where she worked as a professional pilot. As a teenager, she started and showed a Morgan-ish grade mare, but took a 30-year hiatus from horses after high school. She returned to a horsey life in 2003, and now she shares her time with a husband, a tuxedo cat, two Pomeranians, two WB mares, a Lusitano mare, and two miniature jennies.


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