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Caring For A Cushings Syndrome Horse

Updated on September 19, 2014
Dressage Husband profile image

At 6 Stephen fell for a small Shetland Pony abused by other children, and often fed him his lunch. So began a lifetime love of horses.

A Cushings Affected Horse Coat

The Coat Of A Cushings Affected Horse
The Coat Of A Cushings Affected Horse | Source

What Is Cushings Syndrome?

Cushings is an endocrine illness that used to be thought to be caused by a tumor on or near the pituitary gland of a horse. At this time it was usually only apparent in older horses, those aged 20 years or more. Newer research is now finding it in younger horses often as young as 9 years old, these animals are often show horse fed a high performance diet which is high in sugars.Whatever the cause the pituitary gland is over secreting and enlarged. As of writing the condition is incurable, but it is quite definitely manageable. Left untreated a horse will die a long painful and agonizing death. This is not directly due to the Cushings syndrome, but rather due to the suppressed immune system as a result of the Cushings. The Cushings Horse will often start to drink and urinate more and this will increase to 4 or 5 times the normal volume for a horse of the same size. There is also a thinning of the intestine that can lead to increased defecation. These are often the first symptoms that are noticed. With time the condition gradually worsens and often the horse will founder and develop laminitis. Laminitis is a condition where the layers of the horses hoof start to separate and it is extremely painful to the animal. The Canadian Laminitis Society's web site largely focuses on Cushings as this is the primary cause of the condition.

Finally the syndrome will lead to the growth of a long and curly coat that looks as if it has been permed (The Cushings coat). This fails to molt out in spring/summer and this is a sure sign that your horse has Cushings and that it is fairly well advanced at this stage. There are a couple of veterinarian administered tests for Cushings, but a negative does not exclude the condition and one of the tests involves the use of Dexamethasone in testing which is a problem as the Dexamethasone has also been associated with causing founder. The tests do not identify the stage of the Cushings, but give a reading in comparison with normal horses. They are based on the elimination of by products from the blood stream and are to be treated as an indication that the Syndrome is present.

I am not a veterinarian and if you suspect your horse has Cushings you should seek the advice of an experienced horse Vet who has successfully handled Cushings before. The Syndrome is manageable through diet and drugs that are symptomatic. Correctly managed horses not only lead long and normal lives they may remain competitive and often die of old age and/or non Cushings related reasons. If left untreated there will be a steady decline that usually leads to the animal having to be put down to prevent further suffering.

The photograph is of a Cushings horse, in close up to show the curly almost permed appearance of the coat. The coat is both thicker and longer than usual and tends to mat up easily. Photographs used are my own.

A Healthy Horse Coat

A Horse Coat Without Cushings
A Horse Coat Without Cushings | Source

What Does Cushings Do?

The Cushings syndrome affects the pituitary gland and this results in the over production of Cortisols these in turn affect the horses production of insulin. In the beginning a horse may actually start to bulk up and it was thought for a long time that only fat horses got Cushings. This is unfortunately not true thin animals may also succumb. The syndrome does not appear to distinguish between breeds and it may affect up to 10% of all animals there is no difference by the animals sex. This having been said some studies have shown that Mustangs appear to carry Cushings more than other breeds, so it is possible there may be a breed variation of some description.

The Cortisols are like being constantly on steroids, hence the initial bulking up, however this is soon replaced by a breaking down of the muscle tissue. Horses that have had Cushings for any period of time will tend to develop sagging backs and stomachs, which may explain why it was initially thought to only affect fatter animals. The muscle breakdown leads to a gradual decay in other body cells so that Arthritis and joint problems often occur and sometimes ataxia. The animals resistance to disease is also diminished as its antibodies are constantly fighting the decaying process going on in the body and the gradual degradation in health. This leads to possible sores in the mouth and foot infections these take longer to recover than in normal horses and may not without intense treatment programs.

The process from start to having to put the animal down (if left untreated) is about 3 to 5 years depending on the stage at which the Syndrome was spotted and the health of the animal to start with. With correct management and modern drugs a managed horse can have a normal career and die of unrelated causes somewhat like properly managed Diabetes or Asthma in humans.

Certain things are to be avoided as they make Cushings worse, Stress which can be caused by moving the horse or going to shows etc. has been shown to worsen the symptoms, as has feeding too much sweet grass (a problem where grass grows copiously and thickly, usually worse in the Spring). Poor ventilation in the barn and too much dust can aggravate Cushings related conditions, any allergies are often worse in Cushings horses.

The picture in this module is of a normal horse coat as a contrast to the Cushings coat. The pictures are of the same part of the animals neck and about the same scale. Notice the finer and more even texture in the second picture. I took both on the same day so that seasonal coat variation was not a factor here.

Horse Vet Administering A Shot

Equine Vet
Equine Vet

How Is Cushings Treated?

Always consult with a specialist horse veterinarian with Cushings experience before starting a treatment program. The drug of choice is Pergolide (originally developed for humans with Parkinson's disease) it will often have a trade name and it is effective in about 80% of cases. It has to be administered at the correct dosage which the vet will calculate based on the animals age and weight etc. The first trial is usually for at least 6 months, based on what I have read and sometimes the dose will be increased and up to a year may elapse before determining if the trial was successful. In most cases there will be an improvement in the animals condition. Less lethargy, clearer eye decrease in the bulging (often a Cushings symptom), a return to the normal coat condition, moulting out and re-growth of the coat at a non moulting season.

In addition the vet will likely change the diet too, no sweet items to be fed at all. That means no apples, no mints, no sweet feed, however beet pulp is allowed and even suggested to make up dietary bulk. The feed may need to be changed as high fat can also be an issue (get veterinary advice on this). Some older horse feeds may not be acceptable. Supplementary vitamins particularly vitamin E also help. Work on this with your vet and remember to ask a lot of questions check on the latest research on-line and ask about anything that may help. There are no stupid questions just those you never ask!

A herbal remedy exists the Chaste Berry (or Monk's Berry) which often helps horses with Cushings and it is available as a tincture or powdered, it is sold in many Health Food Stores by the name of Vitex. If you choose to try this always do so in consultation with your vet.

Other drugs that have been found to help:-

"Cyproheptadine was the original drug of choice for treating equine Cushing's disease, but many studies are now showing that its effectiveness is not nearly as good as pergolide. Some reports indicate that cyproheptadine used with pergolide can be more effective, however.

A human drug called trilostane offers promise for treating equine Cushing's disease. This drug works at the level of the adrenal gland to slow down cortisol production. Current research has shown that this drug has reversed some of the symptoms of equine Cushing's disease.

More research is on the way to reproduce these findings and prove the drug's safety in horses. Trilostane is available in the United Kingdom, and also to veterinarians here through special arrangement with drug compounding companies. At this time trilostane is very expensive, but hopefully, as has been the case with pergolide, when demand grows and efficacy and safety are established, this drug will become more available and affordable.

Diet is gaining significance in the management of Cushing's disease. Antioxidants, such as vitamins E and C, could play a role in helping to support Cushing's horses. Chasteberry (Vitex agnus castus) is emerging as an organic source of dopamine stimulation; while it hasn't completely stood up to the rigors of scientific testing, many researchers are still looking into it as a source of treatment for equine Cushing's disease."

Quoted from

Manure And Waste Increase

Comparison of waste production
Comparison of waste production | Source

The Treat Or Not To Treat Decision

Really in my opinion there is only one correct financial and ethical decision and that is to try treating and management no matter the age of your horse. The no treatment option will lead to the horse suffering and its health will gradually decline making it miserable lethargic and generally uncomfortable this will gradually worsen until it has to be put down to save further suffering.

Looking at costs the treatment and correct management will increase boarding costs by less than $100 per month. The work for the stable if untreated will increase by about 1hr per day and they will also use more shavings (bedding) their costs will rise by more than the cost of treatment. You would be extremely lucky if the stable does not pass the cost back to you. Remember they may not appreciate the lost time especially if they have their own horses to train and look after as well as other boarders. If the labour is paid just minimum wages of $10 hr or so the costs have gone up by over $300 per month for them.

My suggestion to anyone facing this condition is to talk to the stable owners about the animals needs and involve them in the management plan. Ideally management needs to be worked out between the owner, the vet, the farrier and the stable owner. If you can not afford the increased costs then the only fair choice is to put the animal down to save unnecessary suffering. This last should be the final option you look at, remember 80% of horses are manageable with correct treatment. If you could not afford an additional $100 per month you probably should not have bought a horse in the first place. Ownership comes with responsibility and any animal you own is with you for life it never grows up and leaves!

The photograph shows two wheelbarrows of horse bedding removed one morning one is from all 4 healthy horses and the other from the Cushings horse in our barn. This clearly shows that the Cushings horse produces 2 to 5 times the amount of waste as compared to a normal horse. The Cushings horse produced slightly more that morning than all of the other 4 combined!

What Would You Do If You Had A Cushings Horse?

You Find Your Horse Has Cushings What Would You Do?

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Horse Related Gifts On Amazon - They May Help You Manage The effect of Cushings On You Or Your Friend!

This is just a random selection of some of the great horse related items that Amazon carries.

Current Horse Products Available On eBay

eBay is a great way of finding items for a lower price than elsewhere and is often a source for items no longer available in Stores. The auction aspect lends a sense of excitement to the buying experience too. Remember to check on your bids often to ensure you win!

A Place For Questions Or Any Comments That You May Have

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  • Dressage Husband profile image

    Stephen J Parkin 3 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

    @tazzytamar: Thank you! I agree that everything should be tried in order to give the horse the longest and most comfortable existence possible. Doing nothing is a terrible solution as the poor innocent animal is left to suffer.

  • tazzytamar profile image

    Anna 3 years ago from chichester

    This is such a great lens - not many people know about this condition in horses but I know one who suffers from cushings currently. It's so hard for the owner as well as the poor animal. We had to have a horse put down before due to laminitis - such a horrible experience and I think owners should try everything they possibly can to make the condition better before deciding to abort treatment.

  • Dressage Husband profile image

    Stephen J Parkin 4 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

    I had not come across it before, but it is indeed the major cause of laminitis, which can lead to a premature and particularly nasty death for the poor animal.

  • jemsley lm profile image

    jemsley lm 4 years ago

    Great overview on cushings. Not an easy condition to deal with, i have seen many a horse with laminitis because of this disease.

  • Dressage Husband profile image

    Stephen J Parkin 4 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

    @norma-holt: There are definitely similarities with diabetes in humans. I have not studied diabetes in humans, but the diseases are different as insulin does not work in horses. The diseases could be related, but research has not established that yet to my knowledge.

  • Dressage Husband profile image

    Stephen J Parkin 4 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

    @anonymous: We had not either and did not realise that it is the primary cause of laminitis in horses before. Laminitis is well known and was always associated with the lush grasses of early spring. Cushings is now known to be the major cause of laminitis.

  • Dressage Husband profile image

    Stephen J Parkin 4 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

    @anonymous: Thank you I am hoping that this lens will help people who may not initially have realised that their horse had a problem. My wife has been around horses for 48 years and had never seen a case until now. Strangely the pony next door was also diagnosed with a variation of Cushings (but did not develop the curly coat). If your horse has the curly coat the disease is already well advanced.

  • norma-holt profile image

    norma-holt 4 years ago

    This is very interesting to learn about. It sounds very similar to diabetes and some of the problems as well. I did have some horses when I had my farm a while ago but you learn something new everyday and here in Squidoo its like a library of information. Well done.

  • profile image

    anonymous 4 years ago

    I had never heard of Cushings Syndrome and found this page very interesting.

  • profile image

    anonymous 5 years ago

    Surely this information will help people to gain more insight into what their Horses might have and seek out a qualified Vet that can help them out great detail well done.

  • Dressage Husband profile image

    Stephen J Parkin 5 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

    @Elsie Hagley: That is why I wrote it, my wife is a horse rider and instructor and has worked with them for 38 years. Neither of us knew what the syndrome is or what its affects were until we had a boarders horse that had it. We are hoping that we can help eradicate any accidental and/or deliberate animal abuse through informing people.

  • Elsie Hagley profile image

    Elsie Hagley 5 years ago from New Zealand

    Great article, I have never heard of Cushings Syndrome in horses. Anyone looking for help will find help in this lens. Thanks for sharing. Blessed.