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Why does my horse have dandruff?
Dandruff in horses is a relatively common, usually cosmetic condition in which dry skin flakes off. There are two main types of dandruff in horses: dry and oily. Dry dandruff is more common in the mane and tail (similar to the dandruff you may see in a person’s scalp) while oily dandruff is usually observed on the extremities—the cannon bone, elbows, and hocks. Dandruff can be caused by a variety of factors. It is important to diligently observe your horse in order to find and treat the root cause. Dandruff can usually be treated with simple grooming techniques and over-the-counter shampoos and coat conditioners. If conditions persist or get more serious, always consult your veterinarian.
What is dandruff?
Dandruff in horses can be quite common and is generally more of a cosmetic concern. Scientifically known as primary seborrhea, dandruff visually presents as flakes of dead skin, sometimes accompanied by mild itching. You can relate dandruff in your horse to what you may see in people or dogs; it’s a form of eczema and looks similar across species. Dandruff can appear as either oily or dry.
Oily dandruff is more similar to cannon crud—large, waxy, crusty in appearance, this is more common to see on the lower legs, elbows and hocks.
Dry dandruff is usually observed at the base of the horses’ mane and tail, and anywhere that might rub on a regular basis, such as the girth area.
What Causes Dandruff
There are many potential causes of dandruff, but fortunately it is usually easy to clear up. If your horse exhibits other symptoms, such as hives, heat or swelling, oozing or discharge, immediately contact your veterinarian.
Did you know the skin is the horse’s largest organ? It is indicative of overall health; a coat with a good sheen to it means the sebaceous gland is actively producing sebum, an oil with antibacterial properties. This oil gives the hair a glossy shine, while also protecting the skin. If a horse is malnourished or fighting off disease, the immune system may be compromised and the body will divert resources. Subsequently, the quality of the haircoat will suffer. Hair loss and a dull appearance can indicative of another issue.
Certain breeds, such as Arabians and Thoroughbreds, are thought to be more prone to dandruff than other breeds of horses2.
The Most Common Causes of Dandruff:
Too much or not enough. Regularly grooming is a good way to quickly pick up on any changes in your horse. The curry comb brings dead skin and hair to the surface where it can be brushed away. Sometimes, a good curry session is enough to get rid of visible dandruff. However, too much or too aggressive of brushing can irritate the skin, exacerbating the problem. Similarly, regular baths in warm weather can be healthy for the coat; it washes away dead skin and dirt that can clog pores and irritate the skin. However, washing too frequently can dry the skin out, removing protective oils and causing dandruff where there was none before.
Nutrient imbalances can negatively affect the hair and skin, causing dandruff and hair loss. If you rule out everything else on this list, it’s best to consult an equine professional to check your horse’s diet. Some companies, like Nutrena, offer hay testing to ensure you are supplementing hay with the correct grain. Other companies, like SmartPak, can help figure out what may be missing from your horse’s diet and provide it in an easy-to-feed supplement. Always feed grain and supplements according to the label; a common mistake is feeding by volume instead of weight. Under-feeding grain per the recommendations can short-change your horse on important vitamins and minerals, such as Vitamin B, essential fatty acids, and Biotin: these all help promote healthy cell production, which is important for skin and hair condition. Remember—more is not necessarily better! Vitamins and minerals must be fed in the proper balance.
Tack/Equipment that doesn’t fit
Anything that rubs against the skin can eventually cause it to flake off. If rubbing persists, it can remove the hair and eventually cause damage to the skin. Dandruff is a good leading indicator to check for fit—whether that be the girt, saddle, or blanket, better to ensure proper fit and avoid a potential wound from excessive rubbing.
Allergies can affect horses year-round or seasonally. If you suspect allergies, it’s important to reach out to your veterinarian. They can help determine if it’s a seasonal allergy (such as pollen, or insect activity like sweet itch) or an allergy to something specific, like a feed ingredient or a particular type of bedding. Hives are a common symptom of allergies and should be watched carefully.
Hot temperatures can cause sweating which can lead to dehydration. If the horse doesn’t drink enough, hair and skin will be negatively affected. Cold temperatures and wind can also cause dry skin, leading to dandruff.
Mites, fleas, and lice could all cause dandruff as a side effect of infestation. Does the dander move? If so, it’s probably a louse. Typically, these insects will cause other problems in addition to dandruff, such as itching and hair loss.
How to Treat Horse Dandruff
Treatment should depend on the cause; a nutrient deficiency requires a different plan of action than a lice infestation, or allergic reaction. However, here are some general steps:
Determine the root cause.
This may take time, and trial and error, but understanding what is causing the dandruff is important in keeping your horse healthy and preventing future issues. Observe:
- Has the weather changed significantly?
- Did you make any changes to your horse’s diet?
- Do you see any signs of insect activity or itching? Does the skin appear heathy, or is it red, unusually dry, or swollen?
- If you are at all unsure, grab a friend, trainer, or consult your vet to double check tack/equipment is fitting properly.
- If you thoroughly groom your horse, does the dandruff go away or come back?
Treat the symptoms
- Spend some extra time grooming. Curry your horse to bring all the dead skin and hair to the surface, then brush it away. Now, repeat—was once enough? Be careful to not over-do the grooming, as this can cause further skin irritation.
- If temperatures permit, wash your horse with a dandruff-specific shampoo. I’m not afraid to use human products on my horse (after all, aren’t many human products tested on animals?) Head and Shoulders (yes, the human version) can be effective for your horse’s dandruff. Always be sure to rinse thoroughly—any residue left on the skin can cause further itching, irritation, and more dandruff.
- After bathing, apply a topical skin conditioner to replenish moisture and encourage a healthy coat.
- Clean and disinfect all your brushes, blankets, and saddle pads—just in case something environmental is causing skin irritation, it’s important to eliminate the root cause.
- Wait, observe, and repeat if needed.
- If the problem keeps recurring, consult your veterinarian.
While dandruff has many causes, it is very treatable. Groom your horse regularly as both a preventative measure and to observe any changes; the sooner you can react to anomalies, the quicker you can reverse any negative changes.
Equus Magazine: Get Tough on Dandruff. https://equusmagazine.com/horse-care/tough-dandruff-14524
Amateur Equestrian: How to Eliminate Dandruff. https://amateurequestrian.com/eliminate-dandruff-dry-skin-horses-mane-tail-coat/
Pro Equine Grooms: Dandruff & Your Horse. https://www.proequinegrooms.com/tips/grooming/dandruff-the-whys-and-hows