Principal Body System: Endocrine
Definition: All glands that produce hormones.
Function: Regulates body activities through hormones transported by the cardiovascular system.
However, living longer can bring about health issues that than we didn’t need to consider in the past, and although age isn't always a factor, the endocrine system, and specifically the pituitary gland, can be adversely affected.
Our own experience with Cushings came out of the blue. Many years ago on his daily walk, our then young daughter’s elderly second pony, Dinky, suddenly presented seriously lame with his breathing worryingly laboured – all the signs of laminitis. This literally happened overnight - the previous day he'd been fine; the next, he wasn't.
Although we instantly addressed his symptoms, there were other signs that had niggled us - we hadn't had him long and were still getting to know him, but we were approaching summer and his winter coat wasn't shifting. He was also noticeably drinking and urinating more. We suspected Cushings and got him tested. It came back positive.
Then in 2014, our daughter's third pony, Cookie, who is still with us albeit now retired, also started showing the classic signs of non-shedding curly coat which seemed to appear from nowhere, alongside noticeable lethargy and sadness. She was 15 at the time.
Cushing's Disease, aka PPID (Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction), is all about hormones going wonky. It's a name given to a specific dysfunction of the pituitary gland which causes hormonal disturbances. The Pars intermedia is the boundary between the anterior and posterior lobes of the pituitary, the region which controls the functioning of the secretory cells. It relies on dopamine as its neurotransmitter - a chemical messenger that helps transmit brain signals - to regulate secretions.
As horses age, as with us humans, the decrease in dopamine occurs naturally. As the older horse becomes susceptible to the loss of dopamine, the Pars intermedia produces an excess of hormones, including the hormone ACTH (Adrenocorticotropic) which stimulates the production of cortisol, a stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland.
And so begins the metabolic effect.
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