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Coping with Cushing’s (PPID)


Nothing says ‘Cushing’s’ more than a tell-tale long coat and bouts of crippling laminitis. It’s the most common hormonal disorder to affect older horses, sending the animal’s insulin and cortisol levels haywire. This fluctuation in hormone levels is what increases his risk of laminitis – a crippling disease that weakens and damages the delicate laminae in the hooves.

The facts about Cushing’s

In simple terms, Cushing’s or, to give it its scientific name, pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID), is an age-related disorder that’s most often seen in horses in their mid to late teens. It’s the result of a dysfunction in the middle part of the pituitary gland, which sits near the base of the horse’s brain and is responsible for regulating many of his hormonal systems.

Studies show around 15% of horses over the age of 15 are affected by Cushing’s, and 40% of those over 25. As well as a curly coat and the risk of laminitis, symptoms can include increased thirst, lethargy and loss of muscle tone. A drug called pergolide is used to treat Cushing’s long term and, with good management, many horses go on to live a long and healthy life.

If you’re worried your horse is showing signs, a simple vet test will confirm the diagnosis and drugs can help to ease symptoms and help balance his hormone levels. But how you feed your horse or pony is also key to his long-term health, as experts have proven the benefits of a high fibre, low sugar and starch diet that helps manage an affected horse’s weight and keep him on an even keel.

Here are five simple steps that the nutrition team have complied to help ensure your Cushing’s sufferer stays fit and healthy.

Go for low sugar and low starch feeds

The current recommendation for Cushing’s sufferers, as for those prone to laminitis, is to feed forage and hard feed that’s low in sugar and starch.

If you want to get technical, look for feeds that have less than 10-12% NSC (non structural carbohydrates) and starch added together. Many high fibre feeds, including the Dengie range, contain less than 10% NSC. So feeds such as Alfa-A Molasses Free (6.5% NSC) and Healthy Hooves Molasses Free (4% NSC) are great for Cushing’s sufferers. Feeds stamped with the Laminitis Trust Approval mark are suitable for those with Cushing’s as they’re low in sugar and starch.

Watch your horse’s weight

Just like us, it can be easy to let the inches slip on to you horse’s waist line, so get in the habit of both weightaping him and body condition scoring him on a regular basis to assess his shape and keep an eye on any changes in his weight. Weigh tapes are available from amazon.co.uk, priced at around £6. See the video below to learn how to weightape your horse

Check his teeth

As Cushing’s tends to affect older horses, poor teeth may be an additional problem to overcome. High fibre feeds that can be fed soaked, may be easier to chew and can be used as partial hay replacers, such as Dengie Alfa-Beet.

Ensure that his diet’s balanced

If you’re feeding less than the recommended amount of fortified fed, namely those that contain added vitamins and minerals, or if you’re feeding your horse a fibre only diet, it’s necessary to add a broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement or balancer to ensure your horse’s diet is balanced.

Go for a balancer that’s suitable for Cushing’s sufferers, such as Dengie Leisure Balancer or Leisure Vits & Mins.

Pander to his tastes

One possible side effect of Cushing’s is a lack of appetite, and if your horse is a fussy eater, offering him different types of high-fibre feeds may tempt him to eat. This way he’ll be able to pick and choose what he fancies. If your horse doesn’t eat much hay in the stable, try offering a bucket of chopped fibre alongside to see if you can encourage them to eat more fibre.

Secondly, try feeds with different flavours or herbs to tempt your fussy feeder, or those with very small amounts of molasses added that still contain less than 10-12% NSC. These include Dengie Hi-Fi Lite, Alfa-A Lite or Healthy Hooves.

Bear in mind that some horses and ponies prefer their feed dampened, while others prefer it dry and for some the texture may be important, for example he may prefer mash over a pellet or chop.

Case Study – Chewy

Chewy is typical of many horses in that he was diagnosed with Cushing’s when he was 22 following repeated bouts of laminitis.

Tests established he had both Cushing’s and Equine Metabolic Syndrome (a related condition that affects the horse’s metabolism).

Chewy’s owner, Becca Young from Essex, asked Dengie’s nutrition team for advice. They came to visit Chewy and recommended a diet of Hi-Fi Lite and Leisure Vits & Mins. His progress was monitored – at his heaviest he weighed 468kg, thanks to Dengie’s help, at his lightest he weighed just 400kg.

Since losing nearly 70kg, Chewy has been free from laminitis. His weight fluctuates a little due to spring and autumnal grass flushes, but he’s healthy and in great shape.

Chewy’s new, improved routine includes five hours’ turnout, in the morning, and he wears a muzzle when the spring and autumn grass comes through. In addition to the grazing he gets 5kg of hay every day, split between two feeds, 1kg of Hi-Fi Lite, spilt between three feeds, and 60g of Leisure Vits & Mins. In addition to this, he hacks out most days. “The diet of Hi-Fi Lite and Leisure Vits & Mins is great for Chewy, helping him to maintain a healthy weight and providing him with enough energy for his happy-hacking retirement,” says Becca.