What could I possibly add to a topic that has been written about in every horse magazine ever published? Is regular cleaning of a gelding’s sheath important for his health, or just a waste of time? This article is my perspective on the topic, with some situations that I have run into over the years.
First, here is a one paragraph anatomy and physiology lesson. The sheath is a thick double fold of tissue whose function is to protect the penis. It is like a collapsible telescope. When the penis is extended, the folds of the sheath disappear and become part of the penis. The sheath has some glands in its lining that produce a waxy secretion. When mixed with dirt and old dead cells, it’s called smegma. It smells about the way it sounds. At the end of the penis, close to the urethral opening that carries urine out, is a small cavity that you can just get the tip of your finger in. Its official name is the urethral diverticulum. It doesn’t have a common name that I am aware of, so let’s call it the bean pocket. Smegma tends to collect and compact in that pocket, and like play dough, it takes the shape of that space. The smegma dries over time and when you get the tip of a finger in that cavity and work the smegma out, it looks like a bean, which is what it is called. Part of cleaning the inside of the sheath is the removal or “popping” of that bean. Cleaning the sheath without removing the bean is not really completing the job and can lead to down the road problems.
One early morning this spring I was called out to examine an 18 year old gelding who hadn’t eaten breakfast and was mildly painful. The owner had given him Banamine paste over an hour before, and although he seemed better, there was a concern because he still wasn’t right. I already had a full day, but agreed to come out right away and had Lizzy call our scheduled clients to say that we would be late.
When I got to the farm the horse had just made manure, but still seemed distracted. His temperature, pulse, and respirations were all normal and there were good gut sounds on both sides. Everything was checking out OK, so I didn’t understand why he seemed restless. I did a rectal exam, but couldn’t get very far in because his bladder was so big. I gave him an IV diuretic so that he would urinate. He soon became even antsier, and acted just like a person who has to pee but knows that the nearest McDonalds is still 5 minutes down the road. Finally his urine came out in a huge stream, and his relief was immediate. I did another rectal, and found all the intestines in place and nothing distended. We watched him for a bit and then I left to drive to my first scheduled call. About two hours later his owner called my cell.
“Hey, I know what was bothering that gelding.”
“Go ahead, tell me.”
“I called my wife at work and she said that since we’ve had him he has never had his sheath cleaned, so we did that, and found a monster bean. Hey, this thing was the size of a walnut, and we had to break it up to get it out. He’s been 100% ever since.”
I hadn’t made the connection between that full bladder and the real reason for it. I suspect that the huge bean distended the end of his penis enough that he didn’t really want to urinate, but the diuretic in his system finally gave him no choice.
Several years ago I ran into a peculiar lameness that made no sense. The horse had been off for several weeks before I was called. On examination I could see that the horse was off behind, but his gait didn’t fit any of the usual patterns. We decided to do a more extensive work up in a week, but before I left we gave the horse his annual vaccines and cleaned his sheath at the owner’s request. He had a bean that was good sized and quite hard. She called the next day and said that he was totally sound. Was it the bean? I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the vaccines, and there were no other changes, so yes, I think so. This isn’t a common cause of lameness, but I have had this happen just enough over the years to believe that a large bean can cause discomfort which can be expressed in different ways.