Spring has sprung in many parts of the country, and with it comes challenges for some senior horse owners. While some older horses can consume as much spring grass as their hearts desire and suffer no ill effects (my 16-year-old Thoroughbred, for example), others aren't quite lucky. My 23-year-old Miniature Horse, Brandy, finds herself in the latter category due to equine Cushing's disease and secondary laminitis.
Equine Cushing's disease (also known as pituitary pars intermedia disorder, or PPID) is a hormonal disorder that impacts several body systems in affected horses. There's no easy way to describe equine Cushing's disease (believe me...after writing many articles on the topic, I'm still trying to figure out the best way to describe it), so if you're not sure exactly what the disease is all about, take a look at our fact sheet on the topic.
Brandy had a history of exhibiting several clinical signs associated with equine Cushing's disease, including an overgrown coat, a pot-bellied appearance, chronic laminitis, and increased appetite (that said, Brandy's always had an appetite that far surpassed her small stature!). Still, she remained healthy and showed no signs of distress with the exception of recurrent laminitic episodes (which typicall lasted for a few days each, two to three times in a year), which we dealt with the help of our wonderful veterinarians. All in all, Brandy wasn't that bad-off.
Last fall after a slight decline in health, Brandy's veterinarian diagnosed her with Cushing's disease and started her on low-doses of pergolide and isoxsuprine, which made all the difference in the world. She's doing and looking better than she has in years and she hasn't had a laminitic episode since starting her medication. In fact, she's bounding around the farm quite happily and athletically--I haven't seen her move that well (or fast) in many years.
However, we didn't expect one challenge that accompanied her Cushing's treatment and her new-found "youthfulness." Brandy has decided that she must spend some time outside with friends (the 25- and 26-year-old Appaloosas) for a few hours each day, rather than remaining in her dry lot as she'd contently done in the past. If she's confined to her dry lot all day, she takes matters into her own hands and manages to escape into the big pasture on her way in for dinner.
During the winter we had no trouble managing her need to hang with friends, since there was little to no grass growing in the pasture. But as the grass began to grow, we needed figure out how we'd allow Brandy to spend time with her friends of more than a decade without risking a recurrence of her laminitis. Our veterinarian offered a couple suggestions, and it didn't take us long to find a solution that worked.
We tried shorter and shorter grazing spurts, but that proved difficult to manage for a working family. So we tried a muzzle.
As you might have guessed, Brandy wasn't (and still isn't!) too fond of this idea--she actually throws a "temper tantrum" of bucks, jumps, and squeals each day after she's turned out and before settling down. That said, everyone is happy: She's able to spend some quality time each day in the pasture with her herd mates, but her medical conditions remain under control.
Have you ever had to manage grass intake for an equine senior with Cushing's disease and/or laminitis? What methods did you use to keep them healthy? Did you find any methods that didn't work that you'd like to caution other owners about?
I'd love to hear your thoughts, experiences, and suggestions!
Until next time, cheers!