Diagnosing skin disorders

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    Skin is the largest and most visible organ, consequently it is obvious when something is not right.

    Many disorders will show up as something unusual in the skin and hair coat, when there may well be another more serious underlying problem.

    But even a standalone skin condition can rapidly affect a horse’s appearance and general wellbeing.

    In many cases, it can be very hard to establish the precise cause of chronic skin disease.

    When the skin is damaged, inflammation results and the skin can crust over and will become sore with a similar reaction to many different problems.

    The skin can only respond to disease or damage in a certain number of ways, so there could be several different explanations for itching, lumps, bumps, rashes and hair loss.

    Many diseases look similar because of this limited range of responses. For instance, a grey ring-shaped, scabby area on a horse’s skin could be mistaken for ringworm.

    In fact, such grey scabs could be a number of conditions such as a sarcoid, allergic dermatitis or a bacterial skin infection.

    Treatment of skin problems is not straightforward

    The key to halting a skin problem in its tracks is to catch it early. Try to identify the cause and treat it before it deteriorates.

    Once the skin is badly damaged it may never recover, so if in doubt, it is sensible to consult your vet earlier rather than later.

    When presented with a horse with skin disease, a vet will do a clinical examination and sometimes extra tests, such as skin scrapings, skin biopsies or blood tests.

    Treatment is frequently not straightforward. Horses are big animals to wash with medicated shampoo, especially in cold weather, and their size makes most medicines expensive.

    Another problem is that steroids are often the recommended treatment to reduce the inflammation associated with skin diseases, yet these carry the risk of laminitis, especially for ponies.

    For the full article on treating sunburn and skin disorders, see the current issue of Horse & Hound (6 August, ’09)

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