Now that you are finished laughing, remember that, aside from testicles, your gelding has all of the same "equipment" as a stallion. While he may not be out siring a Triple Crown winner, your gelding can suffer from some "male" health problems.
Sheath cleaning for you gelding
Despite his inability to breed, the gelding still requires care of his reproductive tract, and is subject to a number of reproductive tract diseases and conditions.
Horse owners have been drilled for years about cleaning the sheath and penis on their geldings and stallions. Currently it is felt that a horse only occasionally needs to have his sheath and penis cleaned.
The yellow, crusty-looking material on the penis is called smegma. It is not dirt or infectious material, but rather a protective [no-glossary]covering[/no-glossary] and lubricant for the penis as it moves up and down in the sheath.
Horses with a lightly pigmented penis (which will appear pink) seem to produce more smegma than a horse with a darkly pigmented penis. The smegma may be fairly dry and flaky in appearance, or moist and somewhat goopy.
Both versions are considered normal. If your horse seems to have an overabundance of smegma, a veterinary exam may be in order to rule out any injuries, infections, or potential cancers.
In many cases, veterinarians will administer a light sedative during dental care procedures (floating etc.). The most common sedative has a side-effect of causing the horse to "drop" his penis. This is a great time to do a sheath cleaning with a higher degree of safety and lower cost. Ask your veterinarian to show you how.
If you feel duty bound to clean your gelding up, gently rub the smegma off while wearing disposable gloves. You really shouldn't need water, but if you use any to rinse off the penis, be sure it is warm water and dry the penis gently afterwards. No scrubbing or rough drying with a sponge or towel.
Another concern that has been around for years is that a "bean" of smegma could build up at the end of the penis and interfere with urination. Luckily, a horse can produce quite a strong stream of urine and would easily blow out any such obstruction.
Symptoms of equine urinary tract diseases and conditions
Pain on urination and a "camped out" stance could indicate urinary stones, a urinary infection, or be related to colic pain.
Parasites can get into and around the sheath, causing inflammation and irritation. Fly bites can cause swelling and inflammation on the penis itself, making your horse very uncomfortable. Trauma can also cause swelling and be extremely painful. This may occur if another horse kicks your gelding when he is urinating.
Sadly, prostate cancer has been found in horses. This cancer can affect both stallions and geldings. While it is not common in horses, it is eventually deadly in most cases.
Most horses start off with signs of urinary difficulty - straining to urinate, possibly passing some blood in the urine or acting a [no-glossary]bit[/no-glossary] colicky. A rectal exam by your veterinarian and/or an ultrasound exam can usually identify this problem. A biopsy may be recommended to verify that it is cancer. Unfortunately, treatment is not generally successful.
Cancers can also appear as growths on the sheath or the penis itself. These include melanomas, sarcomas, sarcoids, and squamous cell carcinomas.
When your senior citizen gelding has his annual or biannual physical exam, it would be a good idea to have your veterinarian carefully check his sheath and penis. Some growths can be easily removed if found while they are still small in size.
Paraphimosis in the gelding or stallion
Another potentially serious problem in both geldings and stallions is paraphimosis. This is the inability of the horse to retract his penis into its sheath. This condition may be temporary or permanent.
Temporary paraphimosis is often related to tranquilization, especially with medications such as acepromazine. Some horses will extend the penis when they are simply relaxing around the barnyard but can easily retract it. Most horses will extend or drop the penis to urinate but then return it to the sheath when done.
Other short-term causes that may prevent a gelding from retracting his penis include swelling from any cause - such as bug bites, trauma, or wounds. Diseases that affect the neurological systems such as equine herpesvirus 1 may cause this problem. Any long-term debilitation of the horse may also lead to prolapse of the penis.
The longer the penis is out and exposed, the more serious the condition becomes. This is truly a problem that responds best to quick and thorough care. The tissues around the penis will swell since it is difficult for lymph and blood to return to circulation in the body. The edema will cause further swelling in a vicious cycle as the pressure on veins and nerves is increased. Permanent damage can result.
In addition, the tissues of the penis are not designed to be exposed to the elements. Hot, dry conditions can lead to cracking of the skin and potential infections. In cold weather, frostbite is a possibility. Veterinary attention is definitely warranted.
Antibiotic and/or anti-inflammatory creams can be gently rubbed on the exposed tissue and then the penis replaced in the sheath if it is not too swollen. Sometimes the sheath itself must be surgically opened to allow for a swollen penis to be replaced. Once replaced, it is best if there is a follow up method to keep the penis in the sheath.
Various bandaging techniques can be attempted along with the use of a probang device to keep the penis retracted. A probang is a modified and padded endotracheal tube that holds the penis in normal position while allowing for urine flow.
Geldings (and stallions) can urinate without extending or dropping the penis. A sling or external bandage for added support is recommended. Care must be taken to prevent any urine scald on the tissues of the abdomen.
Short-term use of corticosteroids and diuretics may help to reduce the edema. Antibiotics are needed if there is an open wound, an abscess, or a hematoma. Abscesses and hematomas may need to be opened and drained to allow retraction of the penis and as part of therapy.
Treatment should continue for a minimum of 7 to 10 days but may be required for a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, even drastic measures and dedicated care may fail in some cases. For those geldings, surgical removal of the penis is an option. Once healing is complete, most horses can return to their normal functions.
While it may seem like a minor part of your gelding's health care, staying on top of his reproductive tract heath is important.
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Sheath cleaning should be on the list of periodic and routine health care activities. Many veterinarians suggest cleaning the sheath can be safely and economically done alongside routine dental care. The common sedation used for tooth care also causes the gelding to "drop" their penis, making sheath cleaning simpler and safer. Sheath cleaning products are designed for effective removal of smegma, and are less likely to cause irritation.
About the author
Deb M. Eldredge, DVM is a Cornell graduate and horse lover from early childhood. She was active in 4-H and Pony Club, riding mostly huntseat but also Western. She has competed in various horse show venues as well as competitive trail rides and small three day events. At Cornell she was a member of the Women's Polo team.
Dr. Eldredge is a national award winning writer from both the Cat Writers Association and the Dog Writers Association of America. She lives in upstate NY on a small farm with 3 elderly horses, 1 miniature horse and 2 donkeys as well as various other animals.