The Stables

Cushing Disease in Horses – What You Need to Know

Cushing’s Disease in horses used to be considered as a rare complication as they approached old age but more horses in present day are developing symptoms as they reach their veteran years. It is presumed now with medical care and better nutrition; horses are now living well into their twenties. Compared to four decades ago, most horses only reached their late teens which was regarded as having a good innings! So, with horses now living into their twenties, age related problems increase with Cushing Disease being top of the list.


What is Cushing’s Disease?

The condition was first identified over seventy years ago which the basis being a malfunction of the pituitary gland which is a marble sized organ at the base of the brain. When this gland starts to not work properly, it releases excessive levels of hormone called adrenocorticotropin (ACTH). This results in the adrenal gland increasing the production of cortisol which lead to the hallmarks of Cushing’s – a long, shaggy hair coat, loss of muscle mass, laminitis, susceptibility to infection and increased thirst and urination.


Reaching A Diagnosis

Some vets can make a diagnosis by the symptoms presented above and by the general look and condition of the horse. If more evidence is needed, then a blood test taken by a vet can check for the cortisol and hormone levels but this can be challenging when it comes to confirmed results. There is a specific test called the dexamethasone suppression test but this can present some risk such as a side effect giving horse a bout of laminitis which horses with the disease are prone to.


Treatment of Cushing’s Disease

There is no cure or definitive treatment for equine Cushing’s Disease. However, there are ways to manage and effectively control it. A daily drug called Pergolide can be given orally to stabilise the health in horses that have the disease. If it is found to be effective the vet may decrease the dosage over time.

With the higher risk of the Cushing’s horse developing laminitis as a complication of the disease, diet is a factor in keeping this at bay. The horses feed should be low in starch to reduce the amount of glucose entering the blood stream. Vitamin E and C are a good supplement which is known to recharge their immune system which helps with Cushing’s symptoms. Some vets however advise to give vitamin supplements only when their immune system is being put to the test through an infection or healing of a wound.


Management of Cushing’s Disease

There are additional maintenance and care a horse with Cushing’s Disease needs. With the risk of hoof abscesses and laminitis, careful care and management of their hooves are needed with regular trimming and ensuring their frogs and soles are clean and infection free. To make the horse more comfortable in the hot summer months, then their body should be clipped. Mud fever is another factor in the Cushing’s horse that they are prone to and infection must be treated promptly due to their immune system issues that the disease brings.

Cushing’s Disease is not a death sentence but having this disease is an added factor in the upkeep of a veteran horse. Sadly, sometimes symptoms such as chronic laminitis and constant infections may bring difficult decisions for their future. However, with the right care providing these management practices are put in place, they can continue to enjoy life and good health for many years after diagnosis.