Equine Metabolic Syndrome VS Cushing’s Disease – What Is The Difference?

Last Updated on November 18, 2022

When it comes to equine metabolic syndrome vs Cushing’s disease in horses, these two conditions are commonly mixed up! One of these diseases is often the root cause of recurrent laminitis or founder, but they have very different causes and treatments. Let’s find out everything you need to know about equine metabolic syndrome vs Cushing’s disease in horses!

Equine Metabolic Syndrome VS Cushing’s Disease – What Is The Difference?

If your horse has recurrent laminitis, your veterinarian will most likely recommend carrying out tests for two different diseases – equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) and equine Cushing’s disease. These tests are necessary as laminitis is one of the most common symptoms of both these disorders, so without treating this underlying cause the foot pain will most likely recur.

These are the two most common hormonal diseases of horses, and, unlike humans, dogs, and cats, horse thyroid problems are relatively rare.

However, these two diseases may be commonly associated with each other, but their causes and treatments are very different.

What Is Equine Metabolic Syndrome?

Equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) is commonly associated with horses that are overweight or obese. It is a hormonal condition of the endocrine system and causes disruption of the delicate balance between glucose and insulin in the blood.

When a horse eats, insulin is released which signals the body to take up glucose from the food. When enough glucose has been absorbed, insulin levels will drop. In a horse with EMS, this system malfunctions, and too much glucose is absorbed.

The reason for this is that horses with EMS have abnormal fatty deposits, which release hormones that reduce the body’s ability to respond to insulin. In response to this, more insulin will be released, creating a vicious cycle of high insulin levels and excessive glucose absorption. This is very similar to type-2 diabetes in humans.

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What Is Equine Cushing’s Disease?

Equine Cushing’s disease is more correctly known as Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID). It is a hormonal condition that is caused by dysfunction of the pituitary gland, at the base of the brain.

The pituitary gland plays a major role in controlling the normal metabolism of the horse, and in PPID it loses the ability to recognize when to stop producing certain hormones. If your veterinarian suspects that your horse has PPID, they will carry out a test for adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), which is produced by the pituitary gland.

Equine Metabolic Syndrome Vs Cushing’s Disease – Symptom Comparison

The reason that many people get EMS and PPID confused is that they are both leading causes of laminitis in horses. It is also possible for a horse to have both EMS and PPID at the same time, which complicates the matter even further.

Although laminitis is the primary symptom of both these disorders, the other symptoms are markedly different.

Cushing’s syndrome horses tend to be underweight rather than overweight, with muscle loss and abnormal distribution of body fat. Horses with PPID may develop fat pads, but these are much more prominent in horses with EMS. A horse with EMS will be more likely to be overweight or obese, while one with PPID will normally have a lower body condition score.

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Horses with PPID also exhibit some other classic symptoms – they normally lose the ability to shed their hair normally, and will grow a long, curly coat with areas of patchy sweat. They have a reduced ability to fend off infection due to a compromised immune system and often develop secondary skin infections.

Horses with EMS are less likely to develop any other symptoms, but if laminitis is not present they may still be lethargic and have a marked exercise intolerance.

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Equine Metabolic Syndrome VS Cushing’s Disease – Treatment Comparison

The other key difference between EMS and PPID in horses is that while EMS is normally curable, PPID is a lifelong condition that cannot be cured. Horses with PPID can be stabilized by giving them daily medication which regulates the levels of hormones produced by the pituitary gland. They may need other medication and supportive therapies to treat secondary problems such as laminitis and skin infections.

For horses with EMS, the most effective form of treatment is a weight reduction program. If the horse can return to healthy body weight and resume exercise, the abnormal fat pads will be reduced and the insulin levels will return to normal.

The best equine metabolic syndrome feed is one that reduces the overall calorie intake, especially in terms of sugar. Grain should never be fed to horses with EMS, and access to fresh grazing should be limited. Hay of low nutritional value is normally fed to satisfy hunger whilst promoting weight loss.

If the horse is not suffering from laminitis, daily exercise can also be utilized to help with weight loss. Medication is not commonly given to horses with EMS unless the insulin sensitivity is not improving with weight loss.

With both conditions, the main problem lies in the treatment and management of laminitis. Horses with laminitis require strict rest on a deep, soft bed to encourage them to lie down.

Your veterinarian and farrier will work together to stabilize the hooves and limit any structural changes within the hoof capsule. This may include support on the soles of the hooves, as well as long-term remedial farriery care.

Equine Metabolic Syndrome VS Cushing's Disease - Treatment Comparison

Summary – Equine Metabolic Syndrome VS Cushing’s Disease

So, as we have learned, equine metabolic syndrome and Cushing’s disease are both common conditions that can affect horses, but they have very different causes and treatments. Equine metabolic syndrome in horses is caused by obesity or abnormal distribution of body fat and commonly leads to secondary laminitis. Cushing’s disease is a hormonal disorder of horses caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland and is very common in geriatric horses.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on equine metabolic syndrome vs Cushing’s disease in horses! Have you ever cared for a horse with one of these challenging conditions? Or perhaps you’ve got some questions about how to prevent your horse from getting Cushing’s disease or equine metabolic syndrome. Leave a comment below and we’ll get back to you!