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Softening Old Age in Horses with Proper Care

As a result of better nutrition and health care, horses can enjoy productive lives in their twenties while continuing to live a long life into their thirties. A common ailment that affects older equines is Cushing’s disease and unfortunately it is incurable. Another term for Cushing’s disease is hyperadrenalcorticism which is a result of a slow growing, benign tumor on the pituitary gland that does not spread to other areas of the body and does not metastasize.

The pituitary gland is a small structure found on the bottom of the brain and is often referred to as the “master gland” since it influences a number of organs both hormonally and endocrinologically. It can affect the thyroid gland, the adrenal glands, the ovaries and the testicles.

Cortisol is a naturally produced steroid that occurs in abnormally high levels when a tumor growth is present. As a result of the increase of this steroid the immune system is depressed which in turn leads to secondary infections and problems.

Chronic mouth ulcers are the primary condition of horses that have Cushing’s disease. Horses can also get patchy gray areas on their gums or sections that are red and irritated. Horses can sometimes have difficulty eating as a result of the lesions since they are sometimes painful. The horses will then often become weaker as a result of the weight loss.

Excessively severe “rain rot” is common in most cases since the skin infections heal slowly. The first sign many owners notice is a long and curly coat. However, it may be a couple of summers before concern is caused by the hair growth since the tumor grows slowly. Many owners will discover milder and long standing clinical signs after diagnosis which may have been unnoticed for a few years prior.

There are several symptoms of Cushing’s disease including patchy sweating in some horses. Other horses may drink a lot of water and excessively urinate. Horses with Cushing’s disease may have more flies in their stalls as a result of the higher levels of sugar or glucose in the urine. Distended abdomens are common in horses with Cushing’s disease as a result of the loss of muscle mass. In very hot weather horses may be lethargic, have trouble breathing and sweat. They may also have a tendency towards more severe and recurrent bouts of laminitis or founder.

In and of themselves, these secondary problems can be serious enough but several of these causes in combination can cause a slow deterioration in older horses. In horses with Cushing’s disease low thyroid levels are common and blood tests can be used to make a diagnosis. However, in most cases a diagnosis is achieved by the serial cortisol levels with an ACTH level test which detects a precursor hormone.

It is not possible to surgically remove these tumors because of their location. There is some hope with laser surgery but it is still a far ways off from being an available treatment option. Symptoms of Cushing’s disease can be effectively treated with the two drugs Cyproheptidine and Pergolide or Permax. These drugs work in two ways: slowing the tumors growth and reducing the cortisol levels. In a majority of cases Pergolide works since it is the more potent of the two drugs. However, it is also the most expensive of the two.

Using Feed to Fight Founder

The most serious consequence in horses with Cushing’s disease is the chronic founder which may ultimately lead to death in many of horses with this condition. In these cases dietary changes will help supplement drug treatment by improving the immune system. It is recommended that you feed horses with Cushing’s disease a high fat, low carbohydrate diet that also has a higher amount of vitamins and minerals. It has also been suggested to use herbal and homeopath products. However, use of these products have not been proven yet.

Read the next horse health tips article on Dehydration Illinesses.
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