Cushings disease is a relatively rare disease in horses caused by a tumour on the pituitary gland. The symptoms of Cushings are often physically displayed by showing a long and rough coat--even in the summer; unthriftiness despite good diet; a predisposition for founder and other hoof problems; and a "bloated" belly where ribs are visible despite the larger potbelly. If left untreated, the horse's symptoms eventually grow worse and worse, causing laminitis and other health problems. Knowing how to care for a horse with Cushings can be a real challenge.
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Identifying a horse with advanced Cushings is relatively easy. Detecting the onset of the disease is a bit trickier. One of the most obvious early symptoms will be a large increase in water intake. The horse will drink up to three times the normal amount of water. The horse will likely develop laminitis at some point, which is a crippling disease of the hoof where the laminae inside the hoof wall separate; in extreme cases the hoof will actually slough off. As the disease progresses, the hair coat will change. Hair loss may occur and the hair that replaces it will be rough coarse, and sometimes curly. The horse will lose muscle over her topline and begin to take on an unthrifty appearance, standing sway-backed and pot-bellied. Fat deposits may fill in the hollows over her eyes, and she may have a change in appetite--eating more but unable to gain weight.
The effect of Cushings is a poor prognosis. While some horses can survive for many years with the disease, other will spiral downward quite rapidly and will need to be euthanized, especially in the cases of chronic founder. Surgery is not an option, and besides drug treatment--which can sometimes be successful, and sometimes not--there is not much that can be done to treat the disease. The effects of the disease are to cause a decline in body function and imbalances in the digestive tract. The horse will continue to have more and more trouble processing food and water, will continue to lose condition and eventually, when recurring laminitis compromises the hooves entirely, the animal will need to be humanely destroyed, or it will die itself slowly and agonisingly. If Cushings is caught in its early stages, treatment can slow the effects of the disease.
The standard treatments for Cushings are various drugs such as Periactin, Permax and Parlodel. These drugs work in various ways to negate some of the harmful effects of Cushings disease, and while they are not cures, they treat the symptoms. Herbal treatments have not been successfully proven, although there is some indication that chaste berry (Vitex agnus castus) may be effective for early-stage cases of Cushing's syndrome. The UK Horse Journal ran a field trial of chaste berry treatment (Vitex) that included 10 horses and ponies. The subjects ranged between 13 and 25 years, and were either diagnosed with Cushing's disease or showing obvious Cushing's symptoms.
The Journal reported that typical response was "rapid and dramatic." Hair shedding would typically begin within three weeks, and health and vitality increased dramatically over this time period. According to their trial, high glucose and insulin levels dropped in some of the horses within four to six weeks. While there has still been no medical trials performed that duplicated this performance, there are some dedicated horse owners who swear by the chaste berry treatment.
Keep in mind that whatever supplements for Cushings disease must have a proven effect on hormone balance, particularly seratonin regulation. While buying a supplement that will also make your horse have great hooves and a shiny coat is all very well and good, it does not treat the problem of Cushings. The ill effects of the disease are caused by hormonal imbalance that is, in turn, caused by the tumour on the pituitary gland. So boosting the immune system or adding oil to the diet it not going to help. Look for a proven track record of hormone regulation.
There is no cure for Cushings disease. Do not be fooled by any sales pitch or product claim of a cure. Unless you remove the tumour, the disease remains. A horse with Cushings disease has it for life. Your effort will be in reducing the symptoms and improving quality of life. Eventually, when the quality of life has slipped to a level where euthanasia is the more humane option, be ready to let the horse go. While there is no cure, Cushings is not an instant death sentence. With early treatment and good care, a horse can live comfortably many years with this disease, and continue to enjoy and be enjoyed.
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