Equine Metabolic Syndrome & Cushing's Disease


There are some similarities between the clinical signs of Cushing’s Disease in horses and Equine Metabolic Syndrome which cause confusion for clients when managing these two different conditions. Both syndromes may have atypical fat deposits and laminitis as clinical symptoms, but they have different causes and, as such, have to be managed in different ways.

Discerning The Difference

Cushing's Disease

Cushing’s Disease in horses is caused by a benign growth in the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. This benign tumor causes the secretion of high levels of hormones which cause the clinical signs above, as well as an excessive hair coat which does not shed normally in the spring, muscle wasting, and excessive drinking and urination. Cushing’s usually develops in older horses and, if left unmanaged, can result in severe and life threatening laminitis. There is no surgical treatment available at this time to treat the tumor in the pituitary gland, but there are medications that can suppress the clinical signs for years in many instances.

Metabolic Syndrome

In contrast to Cushing’s Disease, Equine Metabolic Syndrome tends to occur in younger horses, often under 15 to 20 years of age. The common clinical signs are atypical fat deposits, insulin resistance and laminitis. There is very likely a genetic component to this disease which appears to be involving the inability of insulin to trigger the cells of the body to take up glucose out of the bloodstream at a normal level. Left unmanaged, the horse often develops laminitis which can be life threatening. Management involves strict control of exercise and diet and early intervention to prevent the condition from developing to the place where laminitis results.
The diagnosis of Cushing’s and /or Equine Metabolic Syndrome is made with blood tests as well as observation of clinical signs. Early detection and management is critically important in the case of EMS, since it occurs in younger horses and prevention of the onset of laminitis is imperative.  It is important to not feed your horse a high carbohydrate meal such as grain or other concentrate for several hours prior to the blood test.
Contact Us
Please be sure to contact the EVA office for important details regarding scheduling this critical blood test for equine metabolic syndrome and cushing's disease for your horse as well as other services that we offer.