Cushings in Horses

by | Feb 2, 2020

Who doesn’t love the image of a cute, fuzzy pony relaxing in the middle of a field? While ponies in general are furrier than horses, an older furry pony may not be the picture of idyllic adorableness you might expect. Sometimes this can be a sign of a chronic condition known as Cushing’s disease, or Pituitary Pars Intermediary Disease

What Is Cushing’s Disease?

In the brain, the pituitary gland is responsible for hormone regulation. This is not only for the hormones related to introduction. Hormones are responsible for all the changes in the body – shedding the coat in the summer, thirst and hunger, etc. The symptoms of Cushing’s disease are the result of hormone imbalances. Cushing’s disease can show up in people and dogs as well, but in these species, there are different symptoms because different parts of the pituitary gland are affected.

How Can I Tell If My Horse Has Cushing’s Disease?

 horses with Cushing’s disease, the middle lobe of the pituitary gland (the pars intermedia) is affected, either by a tumor or by some other factor. This makes the gland unable to regulate certain hormone levels in the blood, causing a variety of symptoms. Horses with Cushing’s disease often cannot shed their winter coats, or they may grow their fur even longer and curlier than normal. They are often thirsty and drink a lot, causing them to urinate frequently. They may have random fat deposits elsewhere on the body. They are often lethargic, and may show a decreased athletic performance.  The muscles on their back may waste away while their bellies may get bigger. They may become insulin resistant or have trouble with their vision. Since these are also symptoms of a metabolic disorder, horses with Cushing’s disease are often misdiagnosed as having Equine Metabolic Syndrome. 

Horses with Cushing’s syndrome are more prone to infections and laminitis. 

This syndrome shows up more often in ponies than in horses, and tends present itself in older horses (the average age of onset is approximately 19 years old). No one knows as of yet why it shows up, but it is incurable. The good news is that the symptoms can be managed.

My Horse Has Cushing’s. What Can I Do To Help Him?

There are a variety of medical treatments which can be used to treat Cushing’s disease. Depending on the severity of the symptoms and the degree of the disease’s progression, a vet may prescribe dopamine agonists (the most common one is peroglide), serotonin antagonists, and cortisol antagonists. Peroglide and other dopamine agonists allow the body to compensate for the lost inhibition of the pituitary gland, allowing less dopamine to be available for use in the body. Some studies from the UK show this drug to be effective in between 65-85% of cases. If these measures don’t work, serotonin antagonists work in a similar way, and may work for these cases. 

Still other owners may not choose to treat Cushing’s disease with medication directly for the disease itself. They may not want to pay for medication for a chronic disease, or want their horses to be on medication for the rest of their lives. They may not be able to pay for medication for the rest of their horse’s life. They may prefer to manage the symptoms of Cushing’s disease rather than the root cause. Each case is different, and must be managed by the vet and the owner, with the horse’s best interest at the center.

How Can I Manage The Symptoms Of Cushing’s Disease For My Horse?

For the owner who wants to manage the symptoms of Cushing’s disease, it is very important to manage your horse’s farrier care. Horses with Cushing’s are very prone to laminitis and founder, so regular trims are important to maintain his feet. Your farrier can recommend special trims or shoeing plans, or even supplements to help his hoof health.

Regarding management of Cushing’s disease symptoms, check with your vet about ways you can support your horse’s immune system. There are some herbal supplements that your horse can take, which help his body to fight off infections. Your horse’s skin and coat can be quite uncomfortable as a result of Cushing’s disease. This spa treatment from Equiderma can condition and care for his sensitive skin. It is a complete line of skin care products, including shampoo, conditioner, lotion, and fly spray. Because of the weakened immune system, the slightest skin wound runs a high risk of infection Make sure to use Equiderma’s wound treatment or Farnam TRI-Care Triple Action wound treatment to keep his wounds from getting infected.

In his diet, it is important to make sure that your horse is getting enough omega-6 fatty acids such as you can get from Farnam Weight Builder.  Adding supplements such as Farnam Senior Health and Wellness which provide probiotics and amino acids to help minimize muscle wasting and support overall balance in his diet. This anti-inflammatory supplement has a variety of active ingredients that can help the body’s immune system and inflammation reactions. Additionally, adding raw turmeric to his diet can help his immune system as well. A serving of 15g daily (about one tablespoon) should be sufficient.


Cushing’s disease is a chronic condition that affects older horses. It shows up as a long coat that does not shed out, muscle wasting, excessive thirst, and risks of laminitis and founder. The disease is incurable, but with understanding and care, the symptoms can be managed so that your horse can live his life in comfort.

About The Author

<a href="" target="_self">Ani Petrak</a>

Ani Petrak

Ani Petrak is a freelance linguist and writer based in the Czech Republic. A lifelong English rider and groom, she has experience showing in dressage, hunter-jumpers, trail, and young horse in-hand competitions. She is currently working with a Grand Prix showjumping and dressage trainer while raising and training her young warmblood gelding for a career in dressage, working equitation, and cross-country hacking.

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