Yellow Eyes or Skin (Jaundice) in Horses

Published on
Last updated on
2 min read

Key takeaways

Jaundice, also known as icterus, is yellowing of the skin, gums and whites of the eyes.

  • Horses showing jaundice require prompt veterinary assessment, as causes range from not eating to liver dysfunction or excessive breakdown of red blood cells
  • Jaundice in newborn foals indicates a rare, life-threatening blood disorder
  • If jaundice is observed, diagnostics include a physical exam, blood testing, urinalysis, diagnostic imaging, and if liver dysfunction is suspected, liver biopsy
  • Treatment is dependent on the underlying condition, although rest and IV fluids are often required regardless of the cause
Are you concerned?

Connect with a vet to get more information about your pet’s health.

Book an online vet

A closer look: Yellow Eyes or Skin (Jaundice) in Horses

Jaundice requires prompt veterinary assessment to determine the underlying cause. Anorexia (lack of appetite) is one of the most common causes of jaundice in horses.

If liver dysfunction is the cause, outcomes are more favorable when treated early. When jaundice is due to anemia, immediate veterinary intervention is necessary.

Possible causes

Potential causes of jaundice are related to not eating, liver dysfunction, or excessive breakdown of red blood cells.

Risk factors

Yellow skin pigmentation occurs due to the buildup of bilirubin. Bilirubin is a by-product of red blood cells being broken down, and it is normally excreted in the feces or urine.

Jaundice takes time to develop. The waste products that build up in the bloodstream must accumulate over a period of time before a yellow pigment is externally visible. It also takes time for the yellow color to dissipate once the condition is corrected, much like how a bruise fades over several days.

Testing and diagnosis

Diagnostic procedures to investigate jaundice include:

  • Health history
  • Blood testing
  • Physical exam
  • Liver biopsy
  • Fecal sample analysis
  • Urinalysis
  • Diagnostic imaging
  • Scintigraphy (study of distribution of radioactive compound injected into the body)

Treatment varies depending on the underlying cause, but may include

  • Sedation if neurological symptoms present threat of injury
  • IV fluids
  • Rest
  • Medications
  • Dietary management
  • Nutriceuticals

Blood transfusion may also be necessary if jaundice is related to a blood condition.

Similar symptoms

Jaundice is unique and self evident. It is not likely to be confused with other symptoms.

Associated symptoms


Jonathan H. Foreman, DVM, DACVIM - Writing for Merck Veterinary Manual
Jacalyn Carfagno - Writing for The Horse
Nancy S. Loving, DVM - Writing for The Horse
Steven L. Marks, BVSc, DACVIM-SAIM - Writing for Merck Veterinary Manual
Jonathan H. Foreman, DVM, DACVIM - Writing for Merck Veterinary Manual
No Author - Writing for The Horse
Susan Eades, DVM, PhD - Writing for dvm360®
No Author - Writing for Central Lakes Equine
No Author - Writing for Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

Our editorial committee

Our medical review team is responsible for validating and maintaining the quality of our medical information.