Sensible Sheath Cleaning

Some geldings manage their whole lives without ever having the sheath cleaned but others develop build-ups (of old secretions and dirt), which can irritate the sheath and penis. If the sheath line becomes irritated, soreness and swelling may make it hard for the gelding to let down his penis to urinate.

The sheath is a double fold of skin that covers the horse’s penis when he has it drawn up. A dirty sheath can lead to a variety of problems, including pain, discomfort and infection.


Why clean the sheath?

Perhaps a friend or stable mate mentioned in passing that you should clean your gelding’s sheath.What does that mean and why do it? While some geldings manage their whole lives without their sheath cleaned, most experience build-up of irritating secretions and dirt that cause problems.

Glands in the sheath lining secrete a substance called smegma that becomes thick and dark when mixed with dead skin cells and dust/dirt from the horse’s environment. Sometimes these secretions and debris accumulate into a soft, waxlike deposit or dry hard flakes.

If you don’t wash this build up periodically, dried smegma might form a potentially painful claylike ball of debris (called a “bean”) at the end of the penis. This material accumulates in the urethral diverticuli, which are the small pockets near the opening of the urethra (the tube that carries urine) at the end of the penis. In adult horses these pockets are shaped like kidney beans and may be as much as an inch across. The beans will be lodged in these “pockets”. Ultimately, the reason for cleaning the sheath and checking for (and removing) is “to make the horse more comfortable and avoid possible infection”.

Cleaning frequency

The frequency for cleaning depends on the individual horse. Some need to be cleaned every couple of months or so (especially during summer when there is more dirt and dust) and other horses hardly need cleaning. One way to remember is to have it checked when your veterinarian performs a routine dental. All horses should have their teeth checked at least once a year and this is a good time to evaluate the sheath and penis as well as horses are usually sedated and therefore relax and drop it.

The Process

If you are deciding to do it yourself, choose a time when the horse is relaxed. Use warm water and wear gloves for hygiene purposes. Be very gentle and use nonabrasive materials for cleaning and scrubbing, such as soft or loose cotton. Don’t add much soap (use mild soap only!) and use a clean cotton for all the rinsing and wiping.

Other things to look for

Among the problems an owner or veterinarian can detect with frequent checks is squamous cell carcinoma, which can start at the tip of the urethra and is most common in Appaloosas, Paints or any horse with unpigmented skin in the sheath and penis. Such caution save your horse’s life if you discover this type of cancer and start treatment early. If a veterinarian removes these growths when they are small, they won’t be as likely to spread.

Another abnormality veterinarians may find, especially when cleaning inside the prepuce, is melanoma. This is most common in grey horses but it can also occur in other horses. Some of the lumpy tumour can be left alone but keep checking on them to see if they grow.