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Diet Considerations for Horses with Cushing’s


I have a 22-yr-old Morgan gelding with Cushing’s, being well managed with daily Pergolide. Slightly arthritic hips. He gets 1/2 and 1/2 Equine Senior and Buckeye Senior with Buckeye Ultimate Finish added, in a mash with H2O and corn oil, 10lbs/day split into 2 feedings. Also has access to hay, some alfalfa, but his teeth are going so doesn’t get much nutrition from that. He feels pretty good at 930lbs, we do light trail riding. Anything else I should be doing for him nutritionally? – SB

Dear SB,
You don’t mention what body condition score your horse is, but I assume he must be near ideal or you would have told me he needed to either gain or lose weight. Although he’s getting close to the amount of complete feed recommended by one of the manufacturers (12.4lbs with no hay, decreased by 1lb for every 2-3lbs of hay fed), I’m not a big fan of mixing commercial feeds. I believe that each manufacturer develops a product and recommends a certain amount be fed because they assume you will only be feeding their product. So rather than getting the best of both worlds, you might be getting less than the best from each.

If your horse is having trouble chewing long-stem hay to the point of quidding (dropping food out of his mouth), be careful that he doesn’t choke. You may want to feed chopped hay, hay cubes (soaked) or hay pellets so he still has forage but it’s in a more available and safer form.

I see that you’re giving him two sources of fat. Although you don’t say which version of Ultimate Finish you’re using or how much, between it and the corn oil you may want to provide him with additional Vitamin E as an antioxidant to scavenge the free radicals created when the body metabolizes the fat for energy. Are you feeding the fat for additional calories and energy?

My only other advice is to watch him carefully for development of insulin resistance, which can occur in some horses that have Cushing’s. I recommend regular follow-up visits from your veterinarian that include bloodwork to monitor progress of his disease(s).

Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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22 comments on “Diet Considerations for Horses with Cushing’s
  1. carolyn jackson says:

    i have a 14 y.o. mare who refuses to eat pergolide. tired it in molasses, drrench(which is too inconvenient). it is too expensive to waste. i will try other flavcors, only done apple. got any suggestions? she also has bad sleep deprivation. don’t know why, doesn’t meet the usual criteria.

    • Gesa says:

      Have you tried sticking the pergolide in pill form into a treat? I have a very picky either, a 23-year old Oldenburg gelding, and after trying all sort of tricks, including the ones you mentioned, I remembered that carrots are his favorite treat. I cut large carrots into inch-long pieces, make a slit in each piece, and stick his daily pills in the slit. So far, this is the only trick that has worked consistently – for about a year! So, if your mare has a favorite treat, hiding the pills in it might just works…

    • janet says:

      Try putting some coke or pepsi in his grain for a week without the pergalide, then after he learns he loves it you can slowly add some pergalide increasing it over a week to the amount he should have. You will just play with the grain and pop the first week to see how he likes it. Apple butter and corn oil works well, but you need to do it without the medicine for a week first otherwise he will be to suspicious.

    • kelle musgrave says:

      After losing a fortune in spat out pills stuff in carrots apples etc I finally found the only way to get pergolide into my cushing horse was to take the two pills, add a spash of equal and get it creamy. The I wipe it onto her tongue and none goes to waste. I assume Equal (sugar sub) is safe since it’s ok for diabetics

  2. Savannah Scott says:

    Can we do an article on cushings horses that need to gain weight? I have a 21 year old Arab gelding that is pitifully thin with cushings. He is on pergolide, just had his teeth done last month, bloodwork is good, regular deworming schedule. Eats 12 lbs a day of nutrena Safechoice senior and 24/7 access to pasture and coastal hay. Very slow process of putting weight on. Any suggestions?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Savannah, thanks for the recommendation! With 20% of horses above the age of 15 affected by this endocrine disorder – and 40% of horses above the age of 30 – it does make sense to cover all aspects of Cushing’s Disease. At this point, we recommend you talk to your veterinarian about diet adjustments that may help your horse reach his ideal weight. – Dr. Lydia Gray

      • Tina Smith says:

        Hi Dr Gray
        I have a 18yr old gray gelding Cotton. He has sarciods around the inner butt cheaks.I have tried toothpaste, ingecting a steroid in the jugular vain. For the past 5 yrs it seems he’s getting better but would like to know what I can do for Cotton. He’s such a good ride and al around great horse. Thank you Tina

        • Lisa o says:

          I have a cushings pony and got her fat and sound feeding her Rice bran/soaked beet pulp And alfalfa hay. It has made a huge differance in her energy, happiness and her weight. Best to speak with your vet before making changes, this worked for her.

      • Hai says:

        maggiesangels wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick ecxerptI want to share with you my very bfunny horse/b. I’ve had Luna, an Overo Paint, for 7 years, and I was blessed for him be my very 1st bhorse/b. The only experiences I ever had with horses were on trail rides with a guide, so, this was a big b /b

    • Alex says:

      I can start if you like. Baja the horse you see in the picture is a dear fnierd of mine. He is the laugh at the parrty in the kids camp. He is always having fun and wanting to play. When it comes to the finger painting he gets serious. He holds still for the kids to put their designs on him so that they can be proud of their work, Baja knows this is an honor to be painted by them and he holds as still as he can for them. I love him very much and he is dieing, I won’t have him with me here much longer, he has cancer. He is teaching me a lesson, love each day as it were your last, and enjoy the little things in life, They might make the difference that some one needs, He inspires me, and so does my other horse Willy who has over come the odds. They are my teachers and I never forget to be thankful for them touching my life. They make me try harder and never give up. Same as my first horse Digalow.

  3. Winona says:

    Hi Savannah, My horse has cushings also. He is on prascend and safe choice, however I restrict the safe choice because it’s important to keep the NSC sugars low. So I give Safe Choice along with alfalfa hay or alfalfa cubes or pellets. He was so skinny and now he is the perfect weight. So my recommendation would be to stop the coastal and substitute any form of Alfalfa. I know of a Vet who has a laminitic barn and she feeds those horses nothing but alfalfa in different forms depending on the horses teeth. Most horse come down with laminitis in the fall and spring when the grass has a higher sugar content. You might want to think about restricting his pasture time. Hope this helps, Winona

  4. Karen says:

    I also have a 22 yr old Morgan, and my immediate family has several Morgans in their 20’s. You need to be a really careful label reader on feeds — many of the ones labelled as Senior and Low Carb are not so low carb. (Not a comment on the Buckeye – I can’t get their product where I’m at, so I haven’t kept up with their formulations.) We feed a ration balancer. We’re limited in the areas we live as to what we can get, but we have been able to get the ADM Mintrate pellets. The horses like it. We also give some minialfafa cubes. Soak the pellets and cubes well. I give the Smartpak IR supplement; my parents do Remission. None of our horses are on pergoglide or other pharmaceuticals. You might also consider one of the herb blends for seniors, such as Hilton’s. If nothing else, the horses like the taste, and it means their feed is not so monoculture. ALso, don’t forget the pre and pro biopics. We’ve had very good luck with this approach so far. Good luck with your Morgan!!

  5. Tina Smith says:

    I have a 18yr old gray gelding, an Cotton has sarciods around the sheath area and inside butt cheaks. I’ve been dealing with this for 6yrs. No one seems to know how to cure him. He’s a great trail horse and all around great mannured. What can I do to get rid of these sarciods? Thank you Tina Kettle Falls WA

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Tina,
      Your gelding does sound like a great guy! I’m providing a link to a short article about sarcoids (what they are and what can be done about them). Your best bet though, is working with a veterinarian in your area to try some of the treatments suggested, which may require a visit to a veterinary teaching hospital or referral clinic. Fingers crossed! – Dr. Lydia Gray

    • Nana says:

      Amy and I just started vorietnelung with HEART, and just two days ago filled out membership forms. Every day we are there is a joy. I cannot believe the welcome we received from Judy and Mark when we first showed up. This is a couple with a huge heart for horses. Their knowledge about horses is incredible. Everyday we are there is a day we learn somethings new. Amy and I already own a bay quarter horse and we also share the same love and respect for horses but we are green. It is amazing just how busy they are but they will always stop to explain something if needed. If you watch Judy as she speaks about each of the horses you will see in her eyes the love she has for each and she has a story for each one of them. Amy has fallen in love with one of the horses named hunter, what a great horse and we hope to welcome him as a new member of our family soon. There are still great horses waiting waiting for the right family to love them to, til then I know Judy, Mark, and all the members and volunteers of HEART will be giving them plenty of love.

    • Roberta Jones says:

      ? Did you ever get r I d of t h e sarcoids?

  6. Rebecca says:

    We have a 30yr old 12h pony with Cushings that’s been maintaining on 3lbs Rural King senior feed, 3lbs alfalfa pellets and 3lbs beetpulp twice a day. I add in some Redcell at night. He does not have teeth for hay anymore. We’re starting him on the Prascend as soon as it comes in the mail. He looked like he was about to die last summer, and has gained enough so his ribs don’t stick out, but his backbone and hips stick out pretty bad still. Any suggestions for getting him to continue gaining weight, he’s kinda stopped, not loosing but not gaining. We’re hoping the Prascend helps him.

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Rebecca, thanks for asking. It’s definitely tricky to figure out an appropriate nutrition program for an equine whose teeth are not in ideal condition. I strongly encourage you to have a conversation with your veterinarian about your pony’s overall health as well as his diet. For example, without knowing his weight, 3 pounds/day of a senior feed (which is usually fed at a rate of 15-20 pounds/day for a full-size horse) doesn’t seem like a lot of food. While I’m a big fan of soaked alfalfa pellets and beet pulp, I recommend working with your vet to make sure your little guy is getting 2% of his body weight per day in roughage and that his overall diet is complete and balanced in terms of protein, vitamins, and minerals, which you may be able to accomplish just with a full serving of a high-quality complete feed, providing in multiple small meals throughout the day. – Dr. Lydia Gray

      Serve It Up Right:

      The Inside Scoop: Is My Horse’s Grain Enough?

  7. Ellie says:

    I have a Cushing’s pony who is 18 years old but he also gets heaves when he eats hay which can’t be treated due to his medication (perdoglide) and the medicine seemed to be helping but now he’s losing a lot of weight even though he lives in a pasture with access to cleaner hay and some grass but refuses to eat much. I’ve also tried feeding him pellets with and without weight builder but he takes one bite and leaves it. He also won’t eat any beet pulp either. And he hasn’t been rode hardly at all this summer other than an occasional trail ride which is about 30 minutes long and he hasn’t gone under any stress that we know of such as trailering and traveling as he’s a stay at home pony. Any ideas of how to help him gain weight without spending a fortune on him? We have 4 other horses so it’s hard to spend a lot of money on supplements. And we’ve asked our vet a lot about him and they said there’s not a lot we can do about it without putting a lot of money into him. Is there anything else we can try or when do we know that he’s not going to get better and should be put down? It’s not our first option to do that but we have extremely harsh winters with temps as low as -65F and we’re not allowed to blanket and also don’t have a heate/insulated barn. And he also just got his teeth done in June and has always been kept up on with that and his hooves. He also doesn’t seem to be happy anymore either. Which I don’t like seeing him not feeling well and not being happy.

  8. patty anderson says:

    I have a 17 yr old welsh pony that appears to have cushings. All of the symptoms are there. She had some founder last year and that has cleared up but she is a bit low on weight. We put her on grass hay not realizing the founder was caused by cushings. Would it be safe to put her on Alfalfa instead? I am sure that it would help her overall condition but I don’t want her to founder again. My vet also recommended starting her on Prescend. Crazy expensive though!! Also I had her on Purena Senior (2 lbs/day) but it looks like they have a product called Wellsolve LS that is formulated towards cushings. She eats her grass hay (would rather have Alfalfa) fine but I don’t think there is a lot of nutrition in it. Any suggestions?

  9. Christy says:

    I have a 25 year old mini horse named big red. I was told a long time ago when I first got him at 8 years of age that he had crushing, but never saw any signs of it. I know he has trouble shedding his hair every year so I shave him. He has been happy and fit for years. I noticed a few weeks ago that he was loosing some weight and it’s been extremely hot here, so I just contributed it to that. I left for vacation two weeks ago and returned today. Omg I couldn’t believe what I saw when I returned. He has dropped weight dramatically and looks like a skeleton. I was doing some reading and found your site. I need help for this little guy who has my heart. Is a senior complete feed, alfalfa pellets and beet pulp the way to go? I need sone insite? I am having a CBC done tomorrow. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Christy,

      Thank you for your question. I’m sorry to hear that Big Red has been struggling with his weight. It sounds like you are doing the right thing by working closely with your veterinarian. They’ll be able to determine whether or not he does indeed have PPID (Cushing’s) or if there is another underlying medical reason for his sudden weight loss. This will be important in determining the best approach for moving forward.

      While your vet is at the farm, walk him or her through your current feeding regimen. Assess the quality of the hay and grain, weigh your horse’s daily servings, read bag labels, body condition score and estimate weight, examine when and where your horse is fed, etc. Perhaps together you can identify a problem that could cause him not to be getting the quality or quantity of food you think he’s getting.

      While senior/complete feeds generally contain high quality ingredients that are easily digestible, they are all-in-one products—hay and grain in a bag—and as such are very very diluted when it comes to calories, protein, vitamins and minerals. The full recommended serving for these types of products is in the 15 to 18 pound range for a full-size horse. Your vet can help you decide if a senior/complete feed is the best solution for your mini.

      Your vet may also suggest tasty, easy-to-chew forage sources like beet pulp, hay pellets or cubes, or chopped hay. Since some chopped hay has been fortified with vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, be sure to read the bag so you know which kind you’re giving. Fat may be another great add-on to the diet of horses who need extra calories.

      Finally, your horse may be a good candidate for digestive support to help him extract the most out of his current nutrition possible. Ingredients in this category include active live yeast like Saccharomyces cerevisiae, probiotics, prebiotics, enzymes, and others.

      Best of luck to you and Big Red!

      – Dr. Lydia Gray

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