Last Updated on December 26, 2022
Cushing’s Disease is a particularly dangerous 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? Many owners are surprised at the perspective lifespan.
About Cushing’s Disease
Cushing’s Disease or Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) is a potentially fatal disease that affects around 15-30% of horses. Almost 80% of those cases are in senior horses. Cushing’s affects the pituitary gland by causing it to release an excessive amount of the ACTH hormone. As a result, a horse becomes insulin resistant. This means they struggle or are unable to regulate and control blood sugar levels. Insulin levels then increase in the bloodstream, which normally leads to laminitis. Although found primarily in older horses, some young horses can develop Cushing’s. Direct causes are still being researched, but veterinarians and experts now know diet can increase a horse’s susceptibility as well as untreated ulcers.
Cushing’s is not always a death sentence. However, it can most certainly be fatal if it progresses without treatment and even it may be time to euthanize. Unfortunately, not all owners will recognize the signs of Cushing’s until it is too late. In the disease’s advanced stages, pituitary gland inflammation will cause severe neurological issues with brain compression. The immune system significantly weakens and the horse loses condition. Horses with progressed Cushing’s will feel, act, and appear old, malnourished, and develop odd shaggy/long coats. They will act lethargic, sweat, sway uncontrollably, and may not be able to get up or down. In some cases, blindness may even occur.
Expected Life Span for Horses with Cushing’s Disease
Unfortunately, there is no cure for Cushing’s. Once a diagnostic is complete, usually by a dexamethasone suppression test, owners can create a plan of treatment. However, this test (DST) comes with its own risks, including laminitis- especially dangerous to a Cushing’s horse that may already have laminitis issues.
As we understand more about Cushing’s, life expectancy has increased. There are now many products and feeds targeted to Cushing’s horses, but this is also because there has been an increase in Cushing’s disease over the last decade. There is no magic age for Cushing’s, and it is largely dependent upon an owner’s ability to manage the disease’s symptoms. Although horses used to have a very limited life, horses can now live several more years with the disease when properly managed, some well into old(er) age. 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 overheating.
Treatments to Prolong the Life of Horses with Cushing’s
Although Cushing’s causes many secondary issues, the primary goal is to decrease blood glucose levels to stop the body from releasing insulin as a response. Owners will avoid or stop fees with high sugars and starches, and feed 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. Corn, barley, and oat feeds are typically off-limits for Cushing’s horses. Low NSC alfalfa is a great choice, or pelleted hays if alfalfa is unavailable. Owners may struggle to find a suitable diet that does not trigger the disease and may opt for dry-lot pastures to control sugar and starch consumption. 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.
If diet treatment and farrier work are not enough to help a horse, veterinarians do have some medications to help control the disease. Veterinarians may recommend pergolide mesylate or cyproheptadine. These suppress ACTH secretion, therefore lowering cortisol production. Like any other medication, these have possible side effects and can quickly add up. However, these developments have allowed many horses to live longer and comfortable lives.
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 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.