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Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2002 Aug;18(2):271-93.

The equine metabolic syndrome peripheral Cushing's syndrome.

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Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at Clydesdale Hall, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211, USA.


Certain management practices tend to promote the development of obesity (metabolic syndrome) in mature horses as they enter their teenage years. These management practices include the provision of starch-rich (high glycemic index) and fat-supplemented rations to healthy horses that are relatively inactive. Some horse breeds and ponies appear to be genetically predisposed to metabolic syndrome. The accretion of intra-abdominal adiposity by equids is associated with the development of insulin insensitivity (hyperinsulinemia), glucose intolerance, dyslipidemia, hypertension, and insidious-onset laminitis. Omental adipocytes are metabolically active, secreting free fatty acids and hormonally active mediators including cortisol, leptin, and resistin that might contribute to persistence and worsening of insulin refractoriness and the obese phenotype. We have hypothesized that obesity-associated laminitis arises as a consequence of vascular changes and a hypercoagulable state, similar to the development of atherosclerosis in human type 2 diabetes. Several molecular mechanisms that might serve to explain the development of insulin insensitivity as a result of excessive adiposity have been incriminated. Little investigation into the relationship between obesity, insulin insensitivity, and laminitis in horses has been reported to date. Insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance can be improved by dietary restriction and exercise aimed at reversing omental obesity. Management practices that promote the development of obesity are likely initiated during the first 10 years of the horse's life. Veterinarians and horse owners must recognize that mature-onset obesity in adult horses is associated with a risk for development of laminitis. Obesity and insulin insensitivity might be prevented if horse owners can be educated to feed rations with a relatively lower glycemic index to inactive horses. Investigative research pertaining to the development of antiobesity drugs for human patients is continuing. Greater than 30 new pharmaceuticals are in various stages of research. However, it will likely take many years before any of these drugs are shown to be useful and safe in horses. Lifestyle changes in the form of diet and exercise patterns are still the crux of therapy for both human and equine patients.

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