A Tale of Two Princes: Equine Cushing's Disease Treatment Starts and Ends with the Magic Medicine of Attentive Care

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This video is from the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) Foundation, a non-profit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to pioneering the healthcare of animals through the work of ACVIM specialists such as small and large animal internists, cardiologists, neurologists, and oncologists. The ACVIM is the international certifying organization for veterinary specialists in internal medicine.

When you say "Equine Cushing's Disease" to me, I immediately think of a shaggy elderly pony I used to know. And I do mean shaggy. He walked as if he was might tip over at any minute--I don't think his knees or fetlocks bent anymore. His hooves were allowed to grow longer than they needed to be, because he seemed to have laminitis, but then, don't all older ponies? That's what everyone said back then.

His stall smelled like an open vat of ammonia. Spring would come and the other horses would shed, but not him. He'd have to be clipped. And clipped again. And again. And to everyone's surprise, underneath all that hair, he was pretty lean.

No one really knew how old he was. His owners had stopped coming to see him years before, and probably hadn't paid the boarding bill. No one really knew what was wrong with him. He was the brunt of jokes, but the recipient of many treats. Some days I'd see someone had de-matted his mane, or braided his tail, picked up a new halter for him, or had the farrier rasp his hooves down a bit.

But he tottered on. Did I mention his name was Prince?

Fast-forward a lot of years. Here's a new Prince, an Appaloosa in Colorado who also has Cushing's disease. Maybe he's not as old as the Prince I knew, or maybe he's older. But what a difference time and care can make. Here's a horse owned by someone who was alert to the changes he was going through, an owner who sought help and found it. An owner who is giving her horse a chance to live a quality life in spite of his diagnosis.

Dr Brault is so correct when she says that a lot of research is going on in equine medicine, both in geriatrics and in specific endocrine conditions like Cushing's and insulin resistance. Most of it is deeply involved in the hormonal activity of a horse's endocrine system, particularly in how and when and why horses' glandular activity fluctuates as it does--even down to different times of day or seasons of the year. And why those systems go out of whack as some horses enter their golden years.

In between Prince the poor old pony and Prince the Appaloosa video star, I've seen a lot of other horses suffer from Cushings. Most did suffer, too. Laminitis seems to come with the territory, even if Prince in Colorado managed to dodge that bullet. Lately, it seems like there are more horses who are living very successfully with the condition because they have the magic medicine.

Yes, there is a magic medicine. But if you do a Google search for "equine cushing's disease", you probably won't find it. You will, however, find that the first 20 or so search results are for products or services that promise to return your horse to his old self. If only it was that easy!

The magic medicine for horses with endocrine problems like Cushing's disease isn't a pill or a liquid or a supplement. You won't find it in a Google search. It's the magic that the eyes and hands and ears and nose of an attentive horse owner can do. If you know your horse, you'll know when and if things change and you'll take action. Tests for parasites and hormones and gear like a grazing muzzle aren't cheap, but they are cheaper than glue-on shoes and hoof surgery and IV fluids when your horse is found to be dehydrated.

The magic medicine for these horses might look different for two horses in the same barn because horses aren't all the same. What works for one might not work for another.

But supplements, specialist vet consults, medicines and designer hoof trims don't get horses through these problems. The owners do. Or don't, as the case may be. Successful medical, management and nutritional support can only be built on the solid platform of a caring, observant owner.

Just ask Prince. Either one of them.

To learn more, here are some resources for endocrine-related diseases in older horses:

Animal Health Foundation research is examining the relationship between insulin-resistance, obesity and laminitis

The Yahoo "Equine Cushings/IR" Group is intense and confusing, especially at first, but I believe that this group has been a real asset to helping people understand how complicated these problems are and that the medical/management/nutritional plan is evolving and individualistic.

From Cushings to Parkinsons: Connecting the Equine Research Dots at Oklahoma State University, a special report about an ACVIM Cushing's disease researcher featured on The Jurga Report earlier this year.

Equine Metabolic Syndrome research at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine is focused on finding out why only certain horses suffer from this form of equine endocrine disease. Is there a genetic predisposition?

To read more articles, go to the opening page of The Jurga Report.

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