Flaking is the skin’s natural response to irritation of any kind, from sunburn, to drying, to topical irritation for any reason, including infections. Obviously, it’s a natural thing for damaged skin cells to die and flake off, just as our own do. However, the skin also steps up its rate of skin-cell production and flaking as a way to get rid of any irritations on its surface.
To complicate matters further, the skin may be more sensitive to external irritants, or prone to skin infections, because of drug use (e.g. corticosteroids), disease states (Cushing’s, hypothyroidism, food allergy) or a number of nutritional deficiencies. Any number of factors could combine to cause your horse anything from basic dry skin to a serious skin irritation. If you’re battling horse dandruff to an excess, it may be time to take a good look at what’s going on in and outside your horse.
Simple Dry Skin
Many cases of skin flaking are due to the low humidity found in winter and a failure to properly groom the horse. As the horse starts to shed, you may find a buildup of dry, dead skin cells. Good, old-fashioned elbow grease is the treatment of choice.
Curry the horse daily with a tool that gets deep down to the horse’s skin, through his winter coat. You may need more than one style curry to accommodate his different areas, using a softer, more flexible curry for the face and legs and a stiffer one for the body.
Inactive horses are also more prone to poor, drying skin. Exercise improves circulation, wakes up the sweat glands and can often cause a dry-skinned horse with dull, puffy coat to slick down in a matter of days. If the combination of more aggressive grooming and exercise doesn’t take care of the problem in short order, bathe the horse with a gentle shampoo, like Corona. You may also choose to use a keratolytic shampoo or a human dandruff shampoo, if there’s a lot of flaking.
If the skin is sensitive or the horse is itchy, you may be dealing with a degree of secondary bacterial or fungal infection. This may clear on its own as you get rid of the skin build-up (“food” for the organisms). If not, a second bath with an antimicrobial shampoo is in order. If still no relief, you need your veterinarian to check for a more serious fungal infection. The vet may suggest a skin biopsy to determine if there’s a component of allergy.
Also, be sure to go over the horse’s diet to see if there may be a nutritional component. Our chart on page 4 lists key nutrients for healthy skin.
When flaking moves past the “horse needs a good grooming” stage to become a chronic problem, usually including scale formation, it is called seborrhea. Seborrhea may be accompanied by either dry skin or very oily skin.
Hormonal: Castration often decreases the flow of sebum (oil) to the skin, so geldings may be predisposed to dry-skin problems, as are older horses. Hypothyroidism — which rarely occurs as a primary problem but is a fairly common secondary finding with insulin resistance and Cushing’s disease — also often causes dry, flaking or scaling skin, and the high cortisol levels of Cushing’s horses weaken the skin. The combination of thinned skin and a compromised immune system can lead to skin infections complicating the picture.
Infections: A skin yeast, Malassazia, was recently identified as being a common cause of human dandruff and has since been found in flaking skin problems of small animals as well. Low-grade ringworm infections may be present primarily as flaking skin, too, and a variety of bacteria may be involved.
Skin sensitivity from inflammation, itching or an unusual odor to the skin are all signs that infection may be involved. In reality, most severe cases of skin flaking probably have some degree of organism overgrowth, if only because the excess of skin cells and/or oils provides them with ideal growing conditions. You don’t have to see pus, crusts or areas of open skin to have organisms involved in the problem.
Allergies and contact irritants: Sensitivity to fabrics or chemicals coming in contact with the skin can cause flaking and scaling, as can insect bite sensitivity (e.g. Culicoides - “sweet itch”), or even reaction to inhaled or ingested (eaten) foods, molds or pollens.
Horses with insect-bite sensitivities are more prone to develop chemical sensitivities to fly sprays. Conversely, horses with hormonal, infectious or nutritional components to their dry, flaking skin may be more prone to develop allergic manifestations in the skin and skin hypersensitivities. Again, once the problem has reached the point that it’s chronic, there’s a good chance there is more than one category of problem operating.
Nutritional: Last but far from least are nutritional components. It would be rare for a nutritional factor in and of itself to produce a severe skin problem, but it could mean the difference between whether or not the horse develops a problem when faced with another challenge.
Flaking skin that doesn’t respond to good grooming and exercise can be a complicated problem. To beat it, you need to do a careful hunt for internal factors (disease, diet) and external. Many cases have an infectious component. These horses may require specific treatment to get resolution of the problem.
For topical treatments, as a first-line choice it’s hard to go wrong with the EQyss line. Most mild-to-moderate skin flaking problems respond to it rapidly. If you’re only dealing with a build-up under a winter coat, however, we suggest that you try Corona first.
In the supplement category, for across-the-board skin supplementation, the best we found was Glanzen 3 from Horse Tech.
Also With This Article
”Put It To Use”
”Ingredients In Therapeutic Shampoos”
”Nutrients For Skin Health”
”Horse Journal Recommended Topical Skin Products”
”Horse Journal Recomended Coat/Skin Supplements”
”Dietary Factors In Various Diet Types”