Burning Up: Photosensitization and Sunburn in Horses

Some horses are vulnerable to sun damage. Here’s what to watch for and how to protect against it.

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Horse with sunburned nose
Horses with flashy, white markings are more vulnerable to sunburn and photosensitivity because of their unpigmented skin. | Photo: iStock

Some horses are vulnerable to sun damage—even more so after ingesting or touching certain plants. Here’s what to watch for and how to protect against it.

Chrome. It enchants horse owners and judges alike, turning heads in the barn and in the competition arena. Many horsemen covet and some even breed for eye-catching white legs and facial markings, and fans ooh and ahh about it from the stands. The flip side to flashy, however, is that the underlying unpigmented skin is vulnerable to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays—and burn it does, becoming red, sensitive, and peeling. But these horses’ reactions can become even more serious than sunburn, involving localized swelling, crusty scabs, oozing blisters, and areas of severe inflammation. These are all signs of photosensitivity, which can be brought on by a variety of exposures.

Primary Photosensitivity

Some plants (St. John’s Wort, buckwheat, perennial ryegrass, whiteheads) can cause skin problems when horses ingest or even touch them. Photosensitivity is a severe dermatitis (skin inflammation) that occurs when certain plant pigments damage nonpigmented skin cells with sun exposure. The pigments get absorbed in the gut before passing to the skin via the circulatory system.

Stephen White, DVM, Dipl. ACVD, professor and chief of service in dermatology at the University of California’s School of Veterinary Medicine, in Davis, explains that “photosensitivity in the horse is usually caused by a photodynamic (inducing or intensifying a toxic reaction to light) agent … in or on the skin that absorbs energy from light and transfers it to skin cells, which ultimately destroys them.” This is known as photosensitivity Type I, sometimes called primary photosensitivity

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Written by:

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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