What is Cushing’s Disease in horses?
Do you have a horse that has extremely long, kind of wavy hair? Does your horse always seem to be way behind others in shedding out? Are you having trouble keeping weight on your horse despite the fact that you are carefully feeding it good quality hay and nutritionally sound pelleted feed? Does your horse have a pot belly but poor muscle tone? Does your horse carry unusual fat pads? Does your horse drink what seems like a lot compared to others?
These are just some of the symptoms of Cushing’s Disease (the correct name is Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction)
Cushing’s is a condition affecting the horse’s pituitary gland. It causes the gland to release too much of a hormone known as ACTH. This results in horse tissues becoming insulin resistant or unable to control blood sugar levels. Insulin levels therefore climb in the horse’s bloodstream; often resulting in Laminitis (lameness stemming from inflammation around the coffin bone of the hoof).
Cushing’s Disease is very often a condition found in older horses, but younger horses can be diagnosed with it also. It is only recently that Veterinary Medicine has begun to understand that a horse’s diet almost certainly influences the severity with which Cushing’s will manifest itself and perhaps may be a major contributor to the condition also. Untreated ulcers may also have a causative effect on the onset of Equine Cushing’s and environmental stress as well.
So what can be done to help the Cushing’s horse? Since the body releases insulin in response to elevated blood glucose levels, avoid feeds that are high in sugar and starch, which you can find measured by feed companies as water soluble carbohydrates (WSC), ethanol soluble carbohydrates (ESC), or perhaps plain old starch.
Also, it is important to have your hay analyzed for its sugar content. Soaking the hay for 30-60 minutes can reduce the sugars in it but it is important to discard the water.
Grass can also be a problem for the horse with Cushing’s under certain conditions.
Oats, Barley and Corn are very high in starch and are therefore not good to feed your Cushing’s horse. Alfalfa can be an excellent choice providing you have it tested to make sure it has an NSC value of at least below 12% and preferably below 10%. There are commercial pelleted feeds on the market that are specifically for the Cushing’s horse, but read the bag to make sure it meets the criteria above and ask for advice from your veterinarian.
If you find your horse does not shed out well or spends way too much time being sweaty, you might want to give him a trace clip which is pictured in the horse below. A trace clip can be very beneficial in managing your Cushing’s horse excessive hair problems.
Left undiagnosed or untreated, Cushing’s disease can wreak havoc quickly on a horse. In the advanced stages of the disease, severe neurological problems can occur if the pituitary gland becomes big enough and causes compression in the brain. Symptoms of compression include ataxia (uncoordinated movement of the limbs), fever, hyperventilation and possibly recumbency leading to death. If treatment is not provided—and sometimes even if it is—the pituitary gland gets larger, the immune system weaker and the body condition worsens to the point of real debilitation for the horse. These horses look and act very old. Their hair coats are extremely long, sometimes several inches long, and very wavy. They breathe heavily and sweat in their stalls and seem extremely lethargic. They might start to sway when walking, and in the most extreme cases get to the point where they can’t get up or lie down..
For more reading on Cushing’s Disease click on these links:
This fella had Cushing’s Disease and is sporting a trace clip to help him not be so sweaty