Equine Cushing's Disease

Equine bushings disease horse with abnormal coat
Photo: Horse & Hound

The endocrine system is responsible for the creation of different hormones in the human body. Your horse is a mammal that also has this crucial and most significant endocrine system. This system in their body helps them grow, thrive, and survive in different environments. Just like humans, their endocrine system is also susceptible to different malfunctions. One of the unpleasant ones is the Equine Cushings.

When the horse finds it difficult to lose weight, and you see pouts of laminitis, it is Equine Metabolic Syndrome. The common and misunderstood situation makes it difficult for owners to come up with the diagnosis and medication of this disease. The following sections will help you understand this disease, its symptoms, and how you can make your horse's condition better.

Pony with long coat developed from cushings disease
Photo: The Red Pony Pet Service

What is Equine Cushing's disease?

The most common name for this disease is Pars Pituitary Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID). It is a disorder of the endocrine system (hormonal system) in horses. Most of the time, pony breed owners complain about their horses suffering from Equine Cushing's. But this disease is not limited to small breeds. The larger breed horses are at the same risk of getting affected by this disease as the smaller breed ones.

Experts reveal that horses over and above the age of 15 are more likely to suffer from this disease. The younger horses are safe from this condition most of the time. The pituitary gland is the most crucial part of the endocrine system. This part secretes different chemicals in the horse's body to grow and perform normal life functions.

The pituitary gland is in the base of the brain, and when there is an enlargement in that part, there occur some complications. Most of the time intermedia, the part of the pituitary gets enlarged. This abnormal growth increases the production of ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) in their body. After this growth adrenaline gland increases the production of cortisol which results in the following conditions.

pony with a potbelly from cushings disease

What are the symptoms of Equine Cushing's?

There are various signs and symptoms of Equine Cushing's disease. The most common one is the potbellied feature. In this condition, it becomes very difficult for the horse to lose weight. When your beloved horse suffers from frequent urination and ravenous appetite, you may be concerned about this harmful condition.

A weakened immune system and lethargy are also common in the horses suffering from ravenous appetite. The abnormal hair coat is the most significant symptom of this disease that vets and experts warn the owners to be aware of. The weak immune system makes their skin susceptible to infection and wounds. You must give their skin through check frequently.

The other symptom of this disease is the fat disposition above their eyes. The increasing fat makes them overweight, and they will start getting weak and lose their skeletal muscle. The fat accumulation in some horses becomes difficult to identify. But the easiest way to look for this sign is when they are chewing and eating their food. The normal horse will have a depression where the suffering horse will not.

miniture pony with long coat from cushings disease


When the horse's coat increases in abnormal length and shape, the vets explain this symptom differently. According to experts, when the pituitary gland compresses the hypothalamus, the hair condition becomes worse. There are different effects on the coat, from medium to drastic. The hypothalamus regulates appetite, body temperature, and seasonal shedding. The impact on this part increases hair growth, and your horse suffers the most. The owners need to take care of this condition in summer cautiously to prevent overheating of their bodies.

Laminitis and Equine Cushing's disease

The damage and inflammation above the hoof are also associated with Equine Cushing's disease. Various researchers are conducting studies to prove this scientifically. It is a common belief backed by experience that the increased cortisol level in the horse body is responsible for this condition. This condition also affects the metabolism of the horse, and the poor soul suffers in various ways. Read more about laminitis here.

How to diagnose Cushing's disease?

When the pony or the larger horse shows the classic signs, you can quickly diagnose this disease. The hirsutism and laminitis make it clear to the owner that the pituitary gland has started pushing the hypothalamus. The lethargic condition with a change in metabolism is also your cue. But not every horse shows these classic signs for the subtle signs there are the following ways:


When you want the most reliable results for this disease, you can consult your vet for this test. The vet will take the blood sample to check for the ACTH level in the body. An increase in this level is an indication of the disease. You can also rely on this test to confirm the increase in the horse's condition after initiating the medication.

Low Dose Dexamethasone Suppression Test

This is a two-step process where the vets take a sample of the horse twice. The first blood sample will reveal the circulating cortisol level in their body. Then the horse will be administered with the Low Dose Dexamethasone Suppression. After the particular time, the vet will again take the blood sample for the circulating cortisol level. The normal horse will have the bar lower because of the suppressant. But the horse suffering from this disease will not respond to the suppressant and will show a higher cortisol level.

Treatment of Equine Cushing's disease

It pains the owners when they come to know that there is no cure for this disease. But still, with the help of the medication and vet recommendations, you can ease their pain and make their condition better. The most common and effective medicine in this condition is Pergolide. When you offer this medicine to your horse, the cortisol level reduces, and the intermedia gets help to maintain its size towards normal.

Your vet will go for the other medication if the things remain the same. Cyproheptadine and trilostane are the two substitutes when the previous medicine fails in improving the condition.

You can also help your horse by including complementary services such as holistic acupressure. Acupressure can help your horse naturally defend itself. It is best to begin acupressure before this disease arises, but it can also help your horse when the disease does present itself. Reach out to Poll to Pastern to book your acupressure sessions today! Keeping your horse healthy with preventative care is really important.

If your horse has a long coat year round due to this disease, getting the coat clipped will provide some relief in the hotter months. Reach out to your local equine clipping service provider The Red Pony (servicing North and South Carolina).

Grey horse with long coat

grey horse after coat has been clipped

Final thoughts

Cushing horses need special care and attention from the owners. They need regular vet visits and medication with hair clipping regularly. If your horse is safe from this disease, you must ensure regular vet visits, implement preventative care options, watch their hair growth and other symptoms mentioned above.

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