Tattooing it on: eyeliner

Tattoos are now being used by veterinarians to protect horse’s eyes from damaging UV rays. Let’s check out all the details in this week’s “What the muck is that?”

Imagine a football player…

Those black marks aren’t there to make the opposing team quiver in their tight pants. The black color actually reduces glare. Mental Floss tells us, “In theory, excessive light from sources in our peripheral vision will be absorbed by the black color, increasing the contrast of the objects we are looking at and focusing on directly.”

Pale-faced horses, like fair-skinned people, need a little extra protection from the sun. While sunglasses and sun screen might be the obvious solutions for fair-skinned humans, they’re impractical for horses. Protection from sun glare, however, is as important for horses as it is for humans, because horses with little or no pigment in the skin around their eyes can suffer from squinting, watery eyes, sunburn, cataracts, and even cancer. An old-timer’s solution to this problem was to paint black shoe polish around the horse’s eyes. The polish prevented sun glare, just like the black makeup football players wear under their eyes. A more modern solution to the problem, however, is the application of permanent tattooed eyeliner. Tattooed eyeliner is a measure that can help prevent eye problems in horses, says Teri Reid, a registered nurse from Filer, Idaho, who specializes in permanent cosmetics for people (tattooed eyeliner, eyebrows, and lipstick) and eyeliner for horses. Reid detoured from humans to horses when a friend and fellow nurse, Holly Akagi, asked her to tattoo permanent black eyeliner around her pale-skinned, blue-eyed filly’s eyes. The filly squinted and her eyes always watered, says Akagi. Constant watering of the eyes can cause swelling, which then attracts insects, leading to increased infections. Reid agreed to do the procedure, performed with oversight by Bob Monroe, DVM, in his Twin Falls, Idaho, clinic.

So how does this apply to horses?

The sun can irritate, burn, and swell sensitive tissue around the eyes. Some horses, especially bald-faced equines with little or no pigment around their eyes, can suffer from chronic watery eyes, sunburn, cataracts, and even cancer.

Texas-based veterinarian, Chris Boutrous explained the process to Tri-State Livestock News.

Tattooing is done to decrease the risk of developing eye cancer. It is believed that the tattoo pigments can decrease cancer formation of the skin around the eye. Cancers frequently form on the eyeball itself or on the ‘third eyelid’ – nictitating membrane. Tattooing the skin around the eye reduces the reflected light that reaches the eye and hopefully reduce cancer formation of the eye as well.”

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If you’re interested follow these steps:

1. Consult with your veterinarian and make sure they are educated on the process.

2. Research tattoo artists in your area.

3. Provide a complete medical history – including allergies – of your horse to the veterinarian and tattoo artist.

4. Know that a horse with an eye infection or sunburn should not be tattooed until healed.

5. Read through any contracts provided by the tattoo artist and ask questions if necessary.  Many artists guarantee their work and will apply touch-ups for free within a certain time frame.

6. Know prices. Many will not do this for less than $2,000 under general.

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What’s the actual procedure?

1. The vet will examine the horse and give it a sedative.

2. The area is clipped, cleaned and an antibacterial ointment is applied.

3. The tattooing takes 30-45 minutes depending on application of one or both eyes.

4. Once complete, the owner will need to keep the area clean, moist with ointment, and masked for five to seven days.

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What about registration papers?

One association, APHA, allows eye tattoos and advises all their members to “Submit the original registration certificate along with a statement indicating what has been done. This notation will be made free of charge. Please provide photographs of the horse’s appearance after tattooing.”


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