WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #174
TATTOOING - PINK SKIN SURROUNDING YOUR PAINT'S EYES- MIGHT HELP
by Jessica Hein
From "Paint Horse Connection" - Summer 2012
When it came to preventing cancer in her bald-faced, blue-eyed
Paint Horse, APHA member Marcy Blakely of Springtown, Texas, went
Every morning for more than a year, Marcy carefully washed and
dried Pepto Nic In Time's face, slathered him in sunscreen and
painstakingly traced black eyeliner around the pale-skinned rims
of the gelding's eyes. On went the fly mask, and then - only then
- was the 2006 gray overo allowed to rejoin his pals in the
paddock for his daily romp.
Soon after purchasing "Nick" in late 2009, Marcy learned about
how squamous cell carcinoma can ravage light-skinned horses - in
particular, the sensitive tissue around their eyes.
"My husband, Jack, and I went to get hay from someone, and he had
a white horse in his barn that had cancer and had it removed,"
she said. "He didn't know about tattooing around the eyes, and
the cancer came back and started eating away at the bottom of the
eyelid. It just hit me so hard. I told Jack 'I will do whatever
I've got to do. I do not want that to happen to my horse.'"
Marcy immediately embarked on her search for a veterinarian
capable of tattooing preventative, permanent eyeliner around
Nick's eyes. Though she had offers from human tattoo artists and
permanent make-up artists to complete the procedure, Marcy wanted
a veterinarian to apply the tattoo because of the sensitive
nature of horses' eyes and the need to use anesthesia.
After looking around the country for more than a year, word of
mouth led Marcy to Sonny Seale, D.VM., a veterinarian in Garner,
Texas, with multiple equine eye tattoo procedures under his belt.
It wasn't long before Nick went under the tattoo gun.
To help protect the sensitive, light-skinned tissue around Pepto
Nic N Time's eyes, owner Marcy Blakely had a veterinarian tattoo
protective pigment around the rims.
The goal of tattoos around horses' eyes is simple: reduce eye
irritation including the development of precancerous lesions or
cancer - by applying permanent ink to unpigmented skin around the
eyes. Some horses are born with natural "eyeliner," which helps
prevent damage from ultraviolet rays and reduces glare, like the
black grease used by professional athletes. Others aren't so
lucky, and equine eyes surrounded by pink skin - a common feature
of Paints with bald faces or blue eyes - are often seen squinting
or watering, which can attract flies.
"I have never seen squamous cell carcinoma on the lid margin
around a black-lined eye," Sonny said. "I have seen it on the
third eyelid of a dark eye, but never on the lid margin. Of
course, we can't tattoo the third eyelid because that's
The procedure initially begins with an examination of the horse.
A palpebral nerve block is performed to inhibit the involuntary
blink response, and the horse is then put under anesthesia.
Intubation provides a consistent flow of anesthesia for the
duration of the procedure, and the horse's vital signs
are continuously monitored. Before the tattoo commences, hair
surrounding the eye is clipped short.
With a tattoo gun and ink similar to that used on humans, Sonny
applies a tattoo measuring about 1/2 inch wide around the
unpigmented rim of the eye while the horse is under anesthesia.
As in people, the electric tattoo gun uses a group of needles to
inject nontoxic ink into the horse's skin layers. A tongue
depressor gently pulls the eyelid slightly outward, causing
pressure that allows Sonny to apply pigment more effectively.
Excess ink is periodically wiped away with a towel during the
procedure, allowing the veterinarian to check his freehand work.
A second layer of ink might be applied if needed.
The quality of skin surrounding a horse's eye directly impacts
the tattoo applications, Sonny says.
"The more the skin is macerated or dry, cracked, peeled or
chapped, the more ink is lost, due to the damaged skin peeling
off," he explained. "The older the horse, the more initial damage
you'll see around the eye. In those cases, you know you're not
getting the ink deep because you're tattooing skin that will
slough off in three days. Nick's skin is by far the best that
I've done - he's young, and he's got good, clean, soft skin."
Because the area of impact for a tattoo gun is small, the
procedure takes about 40 minutes to complete both eyes. Moved to
a recovery room, the horse emerges from anesthesia shortly
Following the tattoo application, Sonny applies an opthalmic
ointment in the horse's eye. The horse might experience some
swelling or scabbing on his freshly tattooed eyelid, so Sonny
prefers freshly tattooed eyelid, so Sonny prefers to keep his
patients for about 24 hours of observation at the clinic.
"A lot of times their eyes will weep and tear to remove excess
ink from their conjunctival sac," Sonny said, "but after that,
it'll be clear."
Some fading over time should be expected, though, Sonny says.
"Just like people's tattoos will fade, so will a horse's," he
said. "Some of that might be lost skin - as that skin sloughs off
over time, it will contribute to fading. I've got some out there
that have lasted for seven years. They're faded a bit, but they
drastically changed the nature of the skin around the eyes on
Sonny is adamant that tattoos should only be applied to benefit
the welfare of the horse, not for cosmetic reasons.
"Some people might say 'I'd like that done to my horse just for
the looks.'" he said. "I don't condone that. It's only for those
horses that need it for a medical purpose."
To get the most benefit from the initial procedure, Sonny
recommends tattooing eyeliner early in a horse's life.
"Early is always better, especially on a horse with pink skin
around the eye," he said. "Because of sun exposure, they're all
at risk for squamous cell carcinoma. It doesn't matter if the
tattoo will look good on the horse, so long as it protects him
from the sun."
Tattooing around a horse's eyes is sound preventative medicine,
Sonny says. "Every horse is not pre-cancerous," he said.
"Squamous cell carcinoma is just very prevalent. Without this,
they won't all have problems, but a lot of them will. Almost
everyone takes their horse to the vet once or twice a year for
some form of preventative maintenance, whether it's vaccinations,
dental work, lameness issues or other problems. While you're
there, have their eyes looked at too."
Soon after having his tattoo applied, Nick was back home and once
again enjoying life outdoors without the hassle of his former
daily make-up routine.
"I still put a fly mask and sunscreen on his face, but it's more
comforting to know that the tattooed eyeliner will protect his
eyes even if the mask comes off," Marcy said.
Based on her own experience, Marcy implores Paint Horse owners to
get their pale-skinned horses tattooed.
"Do it," she said emphatically. "My advice to anybody who has a
horse with pink around their eyes is to get the tattoo done as
soon as they're able. You won't have to worry about UV exposure
or sunburn when you go trail riding, and when sunlight reflects
off the snow in the winter, it won't hurt their eyes. If you're
going to have horses, you've got to take care of them."
Jessica Hein is managing editor of Paint Horse Connection. To
comment on this article, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tattoo artists - whether they work on humans or horses - are not
regulated by federal laws; state laws vary widely and often make
no mention of equine tattooers. Tattoo guns and other equipment,
like those used by Sonny, can be obtained from veterinary
suppliers. Sonny also says no tattoo ink--which is regulated by
the U.S. Food and Drug Administration - is approved for use
around the eyes.
The qualifications of equine tattoo practitioners also
vary---some, like Sonny, are veterinarians, but others are human
tattoo artists or permanent make-up artists who might or might
not have experience working with horses. Ultimately, it's the
horse owner's responsibility to determine their comfort level for
this procedure and make an appropriate selection.