Last Updated on March 6, 2023
Cushing’s disease is a commonly diagnosed disorder in older horses, but what is the average Cushing’s disease in horses’ life expectancy? In recent years much more has become understood about this condition, leading to many horses with Cushing’s disease living a long and happy life.
Cushing’s Disease is a particularly problematic disease because many owners are unable to catch it in the early stages or lack a thorough understanding of the disease. But with advancements in medicine and diagnostics, how long do horses live with Cushing’s Disease? Let’s take a look!
What is Cushing’s Disease in Horses?
Cushing’s Disease or Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) is a long-term degenerative disease that affects over 20% of horses. Over three-quarters of Cushing’s disease cases occur in senior horses, but it has been diagnosed in horses at a younger age.
Cushing’s disease is a disorder that affects the pituitary gland, causing it to release an excessive amount of the ACTH hormone. ACTH is one of the main hormones responsible for regulating various metabolic processes within the body, and high levels of ACTH can cause a wide range of symptoms.
One of the main issues caused by Cushing’s disease in horses is insulin dysregulation. This means the horse is unable to regulate and control blood sugar levels, causing abnormally high insulin levels. Horses with Cushing’s disease often have an abnormal distribution of body fat and are highly susceptible to laminitis.
Other signs of Cushing’s disease in horses include a thick, curly coat, patchy sweating, increased thirst and urination, general lethargy, and a dull demeanor.
There is no cure for Cushing’s disease in horses, but with an early diagnosis and careful treatment, many horses with this condition live long and happy life.
However, untreated Cushing’s disease in horses can most certainly be fatal and may lead to euthanasia. Unfortunately, not all owners will recognize the signs of Cushing’s until it is too late. During end-stage Cushing’s in horses, pituitary gland inflammation will cause severe neurological issues with brain compression. The immune system significantly weakens and the horse loses body condition and develops a range of secondary health problems.
Horses with progressed Cushing’s will feel, act, and appear old, and malnourished, and develop a shaggy, long coat often with underlying skin infections. They will be lethargic, sweat, sway uncontrollably, and may not be able to get up or down. In some cases, blindness may even occur.
Equine metabolic syndrome vs. Cushing’s disease – What is the difference?
Many horse owners get confused about the difference between equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) and Cushing’s disease (PPID) in horses. It is no wonder why, seeing as these two disorders are between them the primary cause of laminitis in horses, and they are managed in very similar ways!
Cushing’s disease is an incurable condition caused by abnormalities of the pituitary gland, whereas EMS is a metabolic problem caused by obesity in horses. Both conditions cause insulin dysregulation leading to laminitis, which is why the two are commonly confused.
What is the Cushing’s Disease in Horses’ Life Expectancy?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for Cushing’s disease in horses. Most cases are diagnosed by a simple ACTH test, although more complex cases may require other tests such as a dexamethasone suppression test.
Once you have a definitive diagnosis of Cushing’s disease, your veterinarian will discuss a comprehensive treatment plan with you. The focus when treating Cushing’s disease in horses is to control the levels of ACTH using a dication and to treat any secondary health problems such as laminitis or skin infections.
In recent years, much more has become understood about Cushing’s disease in horses, and the importance of an early diagnosis and treatment in extending life expectancy has become clear.
There is no standard life expectancy for a horse with Cushing’s disease, as this can depend on many different factors. The age of the horse and severity of symptoms at diagnosis plays a large role – starting treatment when the disease is far more progressed is not as effective as treating an asymptomatic horse.
The other factor in how long a horse can live with Cushing’s disease is the veterinarian and owner’s ability to manage the disease’s symptoms and secondary conditions. It is often not Cushing’s disease itself that prompts the need for euthanasia, but recurrent laminitis, chronic weight loss, and susceptibility to infection can all lead to the death of the horse.
With an early diagnosis and a comprehensive treatment and management plan, many horses and ponies can live for several years with Cushing’s disease. However, even well-managed Cushing’s horses do not have the same life expectancy as their otherwise healthy counterparts. This is due to other complications and issues caused by the disease such as hoof issues, weight maintenance, or recurrent infections.
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Treatments to Prolong the Life of Horses with Cushing’s
The primary goal when treating Cushing’s disease in horses is to keep the levels of ACTH under control. The best medication for this is called pergolide mesylate, which suppresses ACTH secretion, therefore lowering cortisol production. The use of this drug has allowed many horses to live longer and more comfortable lives.
Once your horse starts treatment with pergolide, your veterinarian will carry out regular blood tests to assess the response to treatment. This means the dose of the drug can be adjusted accordingly to keep your horse’s symptoms under control.
If the horse also has insulin dysregulation, your veterinarian may suggest dietary management to reduce the risk of laminitis. By avoiding feeds that are high in sugar and starches, blood glucose levels can be better regulated.
This can be achieved by feeding hay with low NSC (non-structural carbohydrate) levels. In areas where hay growth is limited to high starch grasses, owners may soak hay for up to an hour to greatly reduce the sugar content. Low NSC alfalfa is a great choice, or pelleted hays if alfalfa is unavailable.
Corn, barley, and oat feeds are typically off-limits for Cushing’s horses. For horses that are suffering from weight loss, fats, and oils can be a great way to improve body condition without increasing blood glucose levels. It is a good idea to carry out regular body condition score assessments on a horse with Cushing’s disease to enable earlier detection of any changes in body weight.
Body clipping is also a common practice due to the shaggy and unnaturally long nature of the Cushing’s coats. For more information on heavy-duty clippers that can handle this hair, click here. Clipping the coat of a horse with Cushing’s disease helps any sweaty areas to dry faster, and reduces the risk of secondary skin infections.
Can you ride a horse with Cushing’s disease?
Whether you can ride a horse with Cushing’s disease depends on the health status and symptoms of the horse. With good management, horses with Cushing’s disease can be ridden and many enjoy long and happy working lives. Regular clipping can help prevent a horse with Cushing’s disease from getting too sweaty when ridden.
However, if the horse appears at all lethargic or has any signs of pain or lameness, it should not be ridden. Horses that are suffering from laminitis must never be exercised, and need to be kept strictly confined until they are fully recovered.
Cushing’s Disease is certainly not something an owner wants to deal with. But with increasing numbers of horses diagnosed each year, it’s important to stay educated on symptoms and potential treatment plans.
If caught early enough, Cushing’s disease in horses is no longer a death sentence. Some dedication to proper care and feed management will allow owners to have many more happy years with their horses! If you suspect your horse may be developing Cushing’s Disease, contact your veterinarian immediately.
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Equestrian, Marine Corps vet, and Morgan horse enthusiast.