Equine Cushing’s Disease is not a diagnosis that any owner wants their horse to receive, but there are many things that can be done to manage and even prevent the onset of Cushing’s Disease.
What Exactly Is Cushing’s Disease?
Cushing’s Disease affects the pituitary gland (pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction or PPID), located at the base of the brain. It also affects the adrenal cortex, located at the kidneys.
Tumors or other abnormalities in the pituitary gland or adrenal cortex cause an overproduction of several hormones. ACTH, or AdrenoCorticoTropic Hormone, which controls cortisol production, is one of these hormones.
Under normal circumstances, a horse would only produce cortisol and other hormones in response to stress or other circumstances, but in horses with Cushing’s these hormones are produced continuously.
The continuous releasing of hormones like cortisol, for example, prevents the insulin in a horse’s body from regulating their blood sugar and prevents the glucose in their tissues from being absorbed. The overproduction of other hormones can lead to problems with immunity, blood pressure, hunger, body temperature, and thirst, among many others.
Understanding Cushing’s Disease is absolutely crucial because it can be difficult to detect and can lead to the development of many dangerous health conditions.
There are several clinical signs of PPID. It’s important to get in touch with your veterinarian if you notice a horse:
- Is sweating more than is typical for them
- Seems lethargic or tired often
- Has fat deposits above their tail head or neck crest or above their eyes
- Is having trouble shedding their winter coat
- Is experiencing weight loss
- Is taking longer than normal to heal from wounds
- Has a poor topline
- Is experiencing more infections than normal
- Seems to be hungrier than usual
- Appears to have a pot belly
- Seems to be growing unusually long hair or has hair that has become curly or matted
All of these signs of Cushing’s or PPID can cause a horse to feel generally unwell, affecting their disposition, ability to move, and much more.
Cushing’s can be caused by tumors, genetic abnormalities, and the overzealous administration of cortisol as a veterinary treatment. Older horses are at greater risk of developing Cushing’s, as are those with laminitis.
A veterinarian will take a horse’s symptoms into account when diagnosing Cushing’s Disease, as even one symptom can indicate possible pituitary or adrenal abnormality.
Veterinarians will also conduct several tests for PPID, including MRI, physical examination, and TRH (thyrotropin releasing hormone) stimulation and dexamethasone suppression to diagnose a horse with Cushing’s disease.
Because of the incurable nature and many causes of Cushing’s Disease, there is no way to prevent it. However, the onset of the disease can be delayed significantly through proper care and management of diet and supplementation. Horses on pergolide should be watched closely for side effects so that dosage can be adjusted as soon as is necessary.
There are several treatment options available. It’s important to discuss each one with your vet to ensure a horse receives the treatment that’s right for them, and to also be mindful of the ingredients any treatment option contains.
Diet modification is typically the first treatment a vet will recommend for Cushing’s. However, it’s important that, regardless of the specific changes advised, you ensure that the feed you administer is low in sugar and starch, as this can exacerbate the blood sugar and insulin resistance issues you are trying to manage.
If treating Cushing’s in an older horse, you’ll want to ensure their feed carries a low glycemic index.
Nutrient supplementation will help replace those lost through dietary modification. Glucosamine, vitamin E, vitamin C, magnesium, DHA, and EPA are commonly recommended. Because many supplements can contain starch and sugar as fillers, you’ll want to check the labels carefully.
Pergolide given daily will suppress abnormal activity in the pituitary gland, typically within three days. Unfortunately, as highly effective as this medication is, it does have side effects in horses with Cushing’s that include irregular heart rate, muscle twitches, loss of appetite, and colic.
Homeopathy can relieve symptoms and mitigate the effects of Cushing’s.
Whole-body vibration (WBV) offers a very effective way to help a horse rebalance their hormone levels naturally. Vitafloor Whole Body Vibration reduces cortisol levels. Horses with Cushings and Laminitis have high cortisol levels. Therefore using Vitafloor Whole Body Vibration may help to prevent Cushings and/or laminitis or may reduce the severity.
Infrared light therapy can help healing in cases of Cushing’s where hair has lengthened and curled, placing additional stress on the skin.
Vitafloor is dedicated to helping horses with PPID to extend their enjoyment and quality of life. We’re the inventors of WBV technology, which benefits equine health at every age. To discover more about our vibration plates, red light therapies, and other products that benefit equine health, browse our products online.