I am in the middle of writing a post about something else, but this topic is near and dear to my heart so I feel compelled to share.
As anyone who's read this blog for a while knows, my dream is to someday own a grey TB. I was aware that they are prone to melanoma, of course, but honestly, did not think that the disease was truly life-threatening in horses*. That is, until I met the wonderful stallion Black Tie Affair at Old Friends. When he turned to look at me the first time it was all I could do to not gasp out loud; this beautiful, now snowy-white but formerly dapple grey boy was absolutely covered in huge lumps. And I when I say huge, I mean HUGE, like up to 12" wide and about 6" tall. I was shocked beyond belief. Thankfully, none of these tumors was open or oozing, but they could not have been comfortable.
Blackie was laid to rest a year ago due to the "infirmities of old age." In addition to the melanomas he also had severe arthritis. I know he was being treated by the top vets available in Lexington, and in the time he spent at Old Friends he really did show remarkable improvement. He was able to get up and down, roll and enjoy some wonderful KY bluegrass and lots of carrots handed out by the staff and visitors. He was adored by all. But it wasn't enough for this magnificent, Breeder's Cup Classic-winning millionaire to make it past the age of 24. [Note: I would like to have included some photos of Blackie here, but I'm writing this via a link from the video referenced below and am not able to post photos.]
After learning about Blackie, I began to revise my thinking about melanoma in horses. Then, last week, I discovered a new horse blog. I was horrified to read that the blogger lost HER grey TB gelding to complications of melanoma, and he was only in his teens! The blogger did not provide too many specifics (at least not enough to satisfy this former pre-vet student's curiousity, but I'm sure she just didn't want to thoroughly gross out her readership) but I believe the tumors may have impacted his intestinal tract. I sent her a message and said all of this has really got me rethinking the whole grey horse thing.
So, imagine my interest when I noticed on TheHorse.com home page just today that there was a video available for viewing regarding equine melanoma. This may not be everyone's cup of tea (there are some graphic photos of tumors) but I found it absolutely fascinating. Boy, did I learn a lot, starting with the fact that many, many veterinarians are inclined to dismiss melanomas as completely benign and not likely to cause any trouble! So I wasn't dumb to think that. Another eye-opener was the statistic that 80% of grey horses will have melanoma lesions somewhere on them by the age of 14. The vet leading the lecture said people will tell him, "Oh, my horse doesn't have any of those," and 100% of the time so far he has been able to find them on the horse.
Apparently melanoma often does usually start out as pea-sized lesions that often "do nothing" for a long time. Vets can be reluctant to remove them at that size because they appear to be harmless and "they might get irritated" if the surgeon goes in. I have heard that said before in regards to humans and animals, so this doesn't surprise me. Unfortunately, a large percentage of those small lesions do decide to grow and when they do - watch out. They can become very large in a short time and often become ulcerated, ugly and a really big problem. The moral of the story is, if your horse has small melanomas, NOW is the time to get them off. Your vet may take some convincing but apparently there is nothing published that indicates that the lesions will grow back or "get angry" if excised.
That's the bad news. The fantastic, terrific news is that there are new therapies being developed that show great promise in treating equine melanoma! I also found out that the researchers have identified a family of grey QHs that are completely melanoma-free, and are working to identify the genome that allows for this natural resistance to the cancer. And if all of this also leads to some new treatment for human melanoma, I am doubly all for it.
Here's the link if you are interested in the details (again, be prepared for gross photos):
The Horse Equine Melanoma: We Need to Help the Old Gray Mare (video)
* Believe me, I know perfectly well that melanoma is life-threatening in humans. A fellow from my high school class, a fair-skinned, freckled, blue-eyed blond, died at age 37 from the disease. I myself am extremely fair-skinned and suffered any number of severe sunburns as a kid. I have already had about half a dozen biopsies of suspicious neoplasms. Thankfully, none of those turned out to be anything, but I live in fear of the sun these days and plaster myself with sunblock. My brothers enjoy taunting me about my pale skin - I believe the latest insult was I would lose a tanning contest with a sheet of paper - but I say, just wait until they're sticking lidocaine needles in YOUR nose and you'll find out in a hurry why I don't fool around with it any more. :-/