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Understanding Sarcoids: Could This Be the Answer?

Sarcoids bannerSarcoids, immunity and nutrition – what’s the link?

What are Sarcoids?

Sarcoids are tumours of skin fibroblasts, which are described by experts as a type of skin cancer. They are not a true cancer because they usually stay strictly within the skin, but neither are they simply warts or suchlike.

Any equid can be affected by sarcoids, including horses, ponies, donkeys and zebras. There is some genetic susceptibility, with some horses having a good resistance to them, and others being very susceptible to them. Exactly why horses develop sarcoids is not well understood. The tumours may spread – in some cases rapidly – across the horse. A number of different types have been identified, which have quite different appearances. If left untreated, they may become too extensive to treat or cause the horse distress e.g. large bleeding tumours that attract flies or affect vision, leading to euthanasia.

It’s possible that immune dysregulation is involved in sarcoid development, but this is an unexplored area of equine veterinary medicine. Some of the topical treatments have immune modifying properties, and a bio-immunotherapy treatment has been shown to have some success. Some owners have reported success with sarcoids disappearing or receding after a period of good health has followed a period of immunosuppression.

Sarcoids are, however, still difficult to treat, and treatment may not be successful. A variety of treatments are used, and none is guaranteed. There is much to learn about this skin condition before more consistently effective treatments can be developed. Some sarcoids will resolve spontaneously. A wide variety of natural remedies are used but most are not recommended by vets, since their effectiveness has not been tested.

Immune function and nutrition

The immune system of the horse, in simple terms, defends its body from attacks from other organisms, including disease agents (pathogens), e.g. bacteria. The horse has a group of physiological responses involved in nonspecific resistance to disease and specific disease resistance e.g. immunity. Non-specific disease resistance functions include:

  • The skin – a tough, resistant layer, and the mucus membranes lining the respiratory, gastrointestinal and urogenital tracts
  • Receptor cells that recognise pathogens, destructive cells that kill and/or get rid of the pathogen, and proteins that activate the destructive cells and help attack the pathogens

Immunity is the specific resistance to disease and involves the production of a specific type of cell or molecule to destroy a particular foreign substance that has attacked the body (an antigen). Ideally, the immune system attacks sarcoid-tumour-specfic antigens, and therefore kills the sarcoid. Despite the fact that a well-functioning immune system is not a guarantee of a sarcoid disappearing, it is likely that a compromised immune system could allow sarcoids to persist and/or spread.

The immune system can be modulated by vaccination, nutrition and herbal remedies, and it can be suppressed by poor nutrition, as well as some health conditions e.g. infectious diseases, metabolic/endocrine disease such as PPID (Cushing’s syndrome), and by old age.

A number of essential nutrients are involved in immune function, and if these are deficient in the diet, immune function will be compromised. Immune-modulating malnutrition may not be obvious from looking at the outside of the horse, because it may involve shortages of essential microminerals – not just shortage of all nutrients including energy and protein.

Some plant materials are known to have immune modifying properties, and these may help the immune system to work effectively.

Nutrition and sarcoids

The cornerstone to optimal function of all the body systems including immune function is a well-balanced diet, and yet still, many horses do not receive all the essential nutrients they need. It is imperative to feed a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement to any horse not receiving the full recommended amount of a compound feed, and doing so is a key factor in ensuring optimal immune function.

Ginseng contains a complex mixture of compounds, and is described as an ‘adaptogen’, or a material that increases the overall body’s resistance to stress and balances body system functions. It appears to increase overall well-being, by a variety of ways including a direct effect on the pituitary gland. Studies in mice have shown an anti-tumour effect associated with an ‘immunological mechanism of action’ (Qian et al, 1987).

Echinacea is a well-known immunomodulator, and it seems to activate useful pathways of the immune system, increasing resistance to certain diseases. Its activity seems to help the body attack pathogens rather than having an overall immunostimulatory effect. Anti-tumour activity has also been documented. Supplementation with echinacea along with other compounds significantly reduced warts in conventionally treated groups (Cassano et al, 2011).

ReadySupp created their E-mmunity supplement to help maintain a healthy equine immune system and interestingly there has been significant owner-reported success when feeding the product to horses suffering from sarcoids. The formulation contains high levels of immuno-supporting active ingredients including vitamins, minerals, amino acids, ginseng, and herbs including echinacea and rosemary.


Sarcoids are a distressing and sometimes treatment-resistant health problem in horses, and minimising their appearance and spread is of interest to every owner of an affected horse. If the immune system could be modulated in some way to encourage an attack on sarcoids, this might increase success rates of treatment. Exactly how the horse’s immune system functions is as yet not understood. Certain aspects are quite clear, however, including that a deficiency of a number of essential nutrients will inhibit defence responses. Some herbs are known to have immunomodulating activities, and these could be used to help the immune system function optimally.

If the immune system recognises tumour-specific antigens, it will destroy them, and therefore having an efficient immune system in a healthy animal will give it the best chance of attacking tumours including sarcoids.

Continued research in to the cause and treatment of this condition is required.

For further information on equine nutritional support or for feeding advice please contact

If you would like to try E-mmunity use the code EMJN15 to receive a 30% off discount on the ReadySupp website.

The ReadySupp team combines the expertise of leading equine nutritionists, veterinary professionals, elite riders, and experienced trainers and producers as well as other equine professionals.


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Posted in Coat health, Equine Health, Equine Nutrition, Equine Skin Health
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