Beware of Cushing’s disease in horses
Definitely more than just “old age,” veterinarians are seeing equine Cushing’s disease, or Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) as it is also known, more frequently now that advances in veterinary medicine are allowing our equine friends to live longer lives.
Ponies—which refers to horses of small breeds—appear to be at the greatest risk of developing this disease, although all breeds, genders and types of horses are potentially susceptible. It is rare to see Cushing’s in a horse under the age of 15 and more common to see it in horses who are in their 20s or 30s. The disease is characterized by a heavy, coarse, wavy or curly haircoat that does not shed as expected. Other symptoms include weight loss; lethargy; loss of muscle mass, particularly over the topline; the development of fat deposits, especially over the tail head, above and behind the eyes, and along the crest of the neck; increased drinking and urination; recurrent infections; laminitis and a rounded abdomen or potbelly. These symptoms can be easily attributed to other conditions, or even just the fact that your horse is aging.
Cushing’s is caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland, sometimes referred to as the “master gland” because it regulates nearly all of the body’s endocrine systems. These tumors are benign, but due to the proximity to the brain are considered “active” tumors. Typically a slow-growing tumor, the size seems to have little correlation as to whether your horse will have a severe or mild case of Cushing’s. Surgery to remove the tumor is not an option, but fortunately, Cushing’s is relatively easy to manage with medication.
Horses afflicted with Cushing’s also generally have compromised immune systems. As such, they are more susceptible to internal parasites, periodontal disease, sinus infections, hoof abscesses and laminitis, which causes the tissue in a horse’s hoof to swell. In addition to medication to help control and slow the progression of Cushing’s, preventive-care strategies become more important to a horse diagnosed with Cushing’s.
Horses diagnosed with Cushing’s should be on a minimum twice yearly preventive care exam schedule, maintaining frequent dental checkups and regular farrier visits. It is also important to establish and maintain a de-worming protocol that takes into account your horse’s increased susceptibility to parasites and to evaluate its effectiveness with periodic fecal egg counts. Ensuring your horse is receiving a diet that will keep her healthy and not exacerbate her symptoms, along with ensuring a good balance of minerals with supplements as necessary, will help your horse stay in the best condition possible. It is important to ensure both the diet and any supplements are balanced, and that supplementation is necessary to avoid introducing any additional complications such as a mineral toxicity into the mix.
Early diagnosis followed by aggressive treatment can not only help prevent and address complications, but it can also help extend your horse’s lifespan while maintaining their quality of life. Cushing’s in horses cannot be cured, but with a well-implemented plan, your horse will still be able to enjoy their life and your company to the fullest.
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