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Ask the Vet: Too much protein for an older horse with Cushing’s?

Posted on: June 21, 2011 by Dr. Lydia Gray

I am writing for advice on my 26-year-old Arabian gelding. His body score condition is currently about a six. He has Cushing’s (receiving 1 mg Pergolide daily) and he also receives Cosequin joint supplement daily. He has been treated empirically for gastric ulcers and it was recommended at the time to provide small feedings, and to include alfalfa for its “buffering” capabilities. In the past he has suffered from loose manure, but I have noticed that when the grass starts coming in and/or I continue small frequent feedings his manure firms up. He has been seen regularly for dental care and quids a little on hay. Other than that he doesn’t have serious dental issues that I know of.

His current feeding regime includes approximately 5 pounds per day alfalfa Chaff Haye™, 2 lb/day of beet pulp without molasses, 1 lb/day wheat bran, 1 to 1 1/2 lb/day Purina Wellsolve L/S (low starch), 2 lb/per day chopped alfalfa, approximately 10 -15 lb of Orchard/alfalfa hay and limited pleasure grazing. The Orchard alfalfa hay was supposed to be 80% orchard and 20% alfalfa but it is quite heavy in alfalfa. The beet pulp, chopped alfalfa, bran, Wellsolve L/S and hay are split between two feedings, morning and night. He receives the Chaff Haye™ at noon and at 10 PM. When the grass is growing and he is grazing more, I stop the Chaffe Haye™ completely.

I know this sounds like a very complicated regime, but he is my only horse and I don’t mind doing it, and it seems to be keeping his body condition good, his manure firm, and he hasn’t had a colic in almost 2 years. My question is: Is this too much protein (from the alfalfa) for an older horse? Also, I am thinking of adopting an older pony who has foundered in the past, and wondering if this regime would be appropriate for him as well. Thank you for any advice you can offer for my old guy. Sally

Dear Sally,
You’re not going to hear anything from me about a complicated feeding regimen, as my barn’s feed room has been likened to a chemistry set and that’s even with every horse on SmartPaks! Your basic question is this: does this diet have too much protein for an older horse with Cushing’s? I’m of the camp that believes older horses should have more protein, not less, or at least have higher quality protein. That is, more of the ten essential amino acids, especially lysine and threonine, the first two limiting amino acids. This helps ensure that their less-efficient, aging digestive tract breaks down and absorbs the necessary amount of protein to maintain muscle mass (especially in the topline) as well as for all the other structure and function needs the body has for amino acids. Unless bloodwork shows that your horse has reduced kidney or liver function and can no longer metabolize protein and its waste products efficiently, I do not hesitate to provide them with alfalfa hay and other feedstuffs high in this important nutrient.

On the other hand, my experience has been that some horses and ponies that have foundered are more sensitive to alfalfa than other sources of long-stem forage so I would exercise caution with the pony you’re adopting. Feed him exactly what he’s getting now at the rescue and after he’s settled in at your place (weeks if not months) begin to SLOWLY change his diet to the one your Cushing’s horse is on, starting with the non-alfalfa parts of the regimen. When and if you do decide to include alfalfa, do so SLOWLY. Hats off to you for adopting a rescue horse!