Horse Health Q&A: Equine Cushing's Disease
Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID), or what is commonly known as Cushing’s Disease, is due to the development of a benign tumor of the pituitary gland. The growth of this tumor subsequently disturbs the delicate balance which exists between the pituitary gland, the hypothalamus, thyroid and the adrenal cortex. It is the disruption of this mechanism that leads to the "presenting symptoms" we all associate with Cushing's disease.
The visual symptoms of Cushing’s seem to come on more often in the fall, along with what is known as the cortisol release:
- Fat pockets and cresty necks develop
- Horses start growing heavier and longer winter coats than normal, which occurs as we have fewer daylight hours and the evenings begin to get cooler.
There is also a cortisol release in the Spring - which may also be related to the horses hanging on to their winter coats and not shedding like the rest of the horses - but is also more likely to bring on a bout of laminitis too, signaling to owners that their horses are starting to becoming a “Cushing’s Horse”.
Are Certain Horses More Susceptible to Developing Cushing's Disease?
Cushing's disease is most common in horses over 20 years old, although the youngest documented
cases have been found in some as early as five to seven-years old.
It is equally prevalent in both genders and has been found slightly more often in Morgans than in any other breed. Ponies and minis may also have a slightly higher predisposition.
What Are Some of the Symptoms of a Cushing’s Horse?
The most notable symptom of Cushing's disease is the growth of a long, shaggy, coat of hair. This
irregularly long and sometimes wavy hair often persists throughout summer months and is a critical
signal that a horse may have either Cushing's or is in the Pre-Cushing’s phase of the disease.
Other symptoms of Cushing's Disease in Horses:
- Excessive drinking and urination
- Non-specific laminitis
- A tendency for recurring infections in the hoof (foot abscesses)
- Loss of muscle mass, especially along the topline and rump
- Depression and/or lack of energy
- Fatty deposits, including cresty neck and/or weight loss
What are the Hormonal/Endocrine Factors?
The hypothalamus gland is located in the brain stem and controls mechanisms in the body such as:
- Temperature regulation
- Blood sugar levels
- Defense mechanisms such as the "fight or flight " response
The hypothalamus interacts closely with the pituitary gland that secretes the Adrenocorticotropic Hormone referred to as ACTH. The release of this hormone into the blood stream then stimulates the adrenal cortex to secrete Cortisol. Cortisol meanwhile increases blood sugar by stimulating the liver to break down stored protein. The increased levels of hormones in the blood stream are responsible for the "diabetes like" conditions such as excessive thirst coupled with excessive urination and sometimes weight loss. It can also cause visual dysfunction, and directly contributes to laminitis, which occurs more often with the Spring cortisol release. Couple that Spring cortisol release with the green grass in the pasture and it is a nightmare for these horses.
Cushing's horses are also prone to repeated skin and organ infections, this is thought to be due to the excessive release of Cortisol which depresses the immune response and the increased levels of blood sugar that create an ideal environment for bacterial growth.
What Diet Recommendations Do You Have for A Cushing’s or Metabolic Horse?
The Cushing's/Metabolic horses should receive little or no alfalfa − their diet should be rich in Bermuda or other low sugar low NSC hay with some Orchard and Timothy added. They also need extra amounts of vitamin E, vitamin C, and MSM.
Horses with Cushing's or Cushing’s-like symptoms should be fed a diet as close to natural as possible. They do best on soaked hay pellets - not concentrated bag feeds/grains - as
most contain too many chemical additives and soy products or soy
In our experience over the years, these horses can have a few carrots and some slices of granny smith apples (they are low in sugars) as treats with no adverse affect/effect.
As for the concentrated feeds out there that are low in both sugar and carbohydrates (NSC), we have found with 10 years of experience that the horses not on these concentrated feeds - low NSC or not - do better.
We also include herbal and digestive support in our natural Cushing's support protocol discussed in detail below. The
reason the herbs work well is that horses are herbivores - and they are
able to use the medicinal property of the herbs by way of digestion. The herbs and digestive supplements are easily mixed into the soaked hay pellets.
What Sort of Natural Supplements/Treatments Are Available for Cushing’s/Metabolic Horses?
Allopathic, chemical treatments for Cushing's disease are available from your vet, but are in some cases quite costly, and they do come with side-affects including lethargy, depression, and more.
Alternatively, we've seen great success with herbal and digestive support when used in conjunction with the dietary adjustments noted above.
The herbs selected for our Cushing's/Metabolic/IR support blend are ones that can help to regulate and balance hormonal cycles, promote blood sugar metabolism and support liver and pancreatic health, all the while strengthening the immune system. For improved digestion and absorption, we include our Equine-Zyme probiotic mix. All these items are included in our Cushing's Support Kit.
Natural Cushing's Support Kit
Earth Song Ranch, along with a holistic vet, designed this affordable natural herbal alternative to allopathic treatments. Our Cushing's Support Kit includes:
- 3.5 Lb of Equine Zyme, a probiotic/digestive enzyme blend
- 2 Lb of Organic Kelp
- 2 Lb of Cushings/IR/Metabolic Herbal Support
- 2 Qt package of the Chaste Tree Berry Tea, which you make fresh and we feel is better than Evitex and a lot more cost effective as well!
- FREE 15 minute Nutritional Review and Consultation (email a list of everything you are feeding your horse, then a time will be set up to go over it on the phone)
- FREE SHIPPING & $45 savings over purchasing separately
The synergistic effect of all four products has produced great results time and time again over the last 10 years - helping to slow the progression or even to bring about a reversal of symptoms and a reduction in ACTH levels after consistent use over a few months.
For many horses that have been on the herbal blend, their
owners could not afford the expensive medical treatments or the drugs. They chose to use an alternative approach in order to try to help their
horses and they too got the same or similar results as Louisa Barton did
with her horse Sunny (see Sunny's story below).
Sunny - A Cushing's Natural Approach Success Story
Read (or listen to) how the Cushing's Support Kit helped Sunny, a Florida horse owned by NBC's The Horse Talk Show Host and Executive Producer Louisa Barton, reduce his ACTH levels from 293 to 27 in under four months.
The information provided here is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for advice from a veterinarian or other health care professional, and should not be used for diagnosis or treatment of any health problem or for prescription of any medication or other treatment. A health care professional should be consulted before starting any diet or supplementation program, before administering any medication, alternative, herbal blends et al or if your horse has a health problem. Do not discontinue any other medical treatments without first consulting your health care professional. ©Copyright 2016. Earth Song Ranch. All rights reserved.
Further Reading - Published Articles by Earth Song Ranch
- Sunny's Story - A Cure for Cushings - Natural Horse Magazine
- Healthy Gut, Healthy Horse: How Probiotics Help - Equine Wellness Magazine
- Pro-Biotics: Bugs You Do Want in Your Horse’s Life - Equine Wellness Magazine
- The Zymes - What they Do, What they Contain & Why You Should Use them
Questions? We're Here to Help
We know choosing the right natural supplement for your horse can seem daunting. Earth Song Ranch is dedicated to educating our customers because we want you to make the best choice for your horse and your unique needs.
You'll find a variety of information in our published articles and archived newsletters here on our site. But sometimes, you just need to talk a situation out. For those times, we offer private phone consultations.
Cushing's Disease & Diet Consultations
We offer diet and nutritional consulting for those of you supporting a Cushing's horse - or looking to prevent Cushing's /IR/ Metabolic disorders from developing. Consultations are available in the following increments.
First time customers who book an hour consultation receive $25 off your first order of $100 or more.
- 15 minutes - $25
- 30 minutes - $45
- 1 hour - $75
Go here to purchase a phone consultation.
About the Author
Jessica Lynn writes articles for various national and international horse publications. She is an Equine Nutritionist and the owner of Earth Song Ranch, a feed & supplement manufacturer based in Southern California. Jessica has been involved in alternative health care, herbs, homeopathy, alternative health and nutrition for almost 40 years. Contact Jessica at Jessica@earthsongranch.com or phone 951-514-9700. Her web site, www.earthsongranch.com, offers numerous published articles and resources on natural health for horses, dogs, and cats.
"Jessica Lynn at Earth Song Ranch - you're my miracle worker!! Sunny, diagnosed with Cushing's one year ago, had 10 times the normal ACTH level (293) and had every Cushing's symptom. Today his blood work came back at 27. (35 is high normal). He is now completely normal and can no longer be diagnosed with Cushing's. His fat deposits are all gone, his hair is growing back at a normal length, he is bright, vibrant, happy and loving life again....Sunny and I are both indebted to you!!
- Louisa Barton, Host of NBC's The Horse Talk Show
Shadow is a 21 year old Tennessee walker gelding, who has been on Pergolide for 4 years. He is taking 6.5 mg. I was using your Cushings Zyme for a rescue mini I had and, in April, started giving Shadow a daily dose of it. He seemed to brighten up considerably. For the first time, I had to shave him this year, but after being on Cushings Zyme for a month, his coat grew in black. He's supposed to be black, but has had an iron overloaded "orange" coat for 4 years. In his younger years, he never wavered from his pitch black coat, so I know what his coat should look like. I took him on a trip in the middle of May - a 10 hour trailer ride. He was so happy to go - wasn't even concerned that he was by himself in that trailer - just bright eyed and eating his hay bag with gusto. I don't remember when I last saw him like that. Thank you.
- Michelle R.
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