Can Horses Get Diabetes?

Jessica McDaniel
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Can Horses Get Diabetes: Insulin Resistance in Horses

A metabolic disorder that occurs when there is:

  • Too little insulin produced by the pancreas
  • Poor response of target cells to insulin
  • Insulin resistance or reduced insulin sensitivity

Diabetes can be controlled through early diagnosis and treatment.

Horses can get diabetes from birth or can develop it as a result of their work with intramuscular adipose tissue.

Diabetes Mellitus can be identified in grazing animals, that are fed a very high-energy diet.

Horses can get diabetes from birth or can develop it as a result of their work with intramuscular adipose tissue.

Diabetes Mellitus can be identified in grazing animals, that are fed a very high-energy diet mostly in the form of grain concentrates.

The most common reason why horses get diabetes is as a result of obesity.

Excess body weight reduces the insulin sensitivity of target organs in the body.

This is known as insulin resistance.

Some horses may be born with the predisposition to insulin resistance, and hence, prone to developing Type II diabetes.

Can Horses Get Diabetes: Symptoms

Diagnosis, and Treatments.

Diabetes mellitus is a metabolic condition characterized by persistently high levels of blood glucose resulting from defects in insulin secretion, insulin action, or both. There are two types of diabetes mellitus: type 1 and type 2.

Type 1 is called juvenile diabetes, or insulin-dependent diabetes, where there is a complete or near-complete deficiency of insulin production by the pancreas.

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. It is required for processing sugar, which powers most of your cells, muscles, and organs. Without enough insulin, the body cannot process sugar properly, leading to diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes develops when the immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This attack also damages the rest of the pancreas tissue, resulting in complete or near complete depletion of insulin. Genetics can influence type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is most common form of diabetes. This form of diabetes is associated with insulin resistance and glucose intolerance.

Type 2 diabetes has multiple causes. It can be primary or insulin-dependent, or a mixture of both.

Primary or Type 2 diabetes occurs when cells stop responding to insulin and glucose builds up in the blood, to dangerous levels.

Type 2 diabetes is associated with diet and a sedentary lifestyle, which promote weight gain and fat storage around abdominal organs.

How do Horses get Insulin Resistance?

Risk factors for insulin resistance in horses include:




Can Horses Get Diabetes: Treatments

It’s a common question for horse owners. Can my horse get diabetes? We know about diabetes in humans and dogs but not in horses. However, there’s a condition in horses that serves as a good equivalent to the disease in humans and is called Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM), although it’s more commonly referred to as equine metabolic syndrome (EMS).

Let’s understand what diabetes is in humans and how it affects the human body so that we can better understand what EMS in horses is and how it affects them.

In humans, people who have a genetic predisposition to Type 1 diabetes have insufficient or no production of insulin, which is produced in the pancreas and regulated glucose in the bloodstream.

Glucose is a type of sugar in the body and is a source of energy. Glucose levels are kept at optimum levels through insulin that is produced in the pancreas. When the body is not able to produce enough insulin, blood glucose levels are higher than normal and result in symptoms like excessive thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, loss of weight, and something like high blood sugar.

Although it’s uncommon for horses to suffer from Type 1 diabetes. Horses do suffer from Type 2 diabetes and a disease called equine metabolic syndrome (EMS or PSSM).


When I was growing up, I was aware that ponies were a great alternative to a workhorse. When the work was done, the pony could still run like the wind in any direction it wanted. If you got on, it could nudge you off with a gentle snort, pirouette on the spot and stand staring at you, daring you to get back on. You could walk along the beach, touching the heads of the higher dunes with the tips of your toes, while the little horse made like a sand cat, hoisting one foreleg, then the other, avoiding the patches of prickly thistle, glittering little streams of water seeping from the mouths of miniature caves.

The Pony Man at Ashbourne House, where I was a regular visitor, took the same attitude to feeding time as the ponies. Twice a day he threw out a handful of corn. They were free to choose when to eat it, but he always left the gate open, so they could come and go as they pleased. The ponies were the same every day, yet every day was different.


Yes, there have been several documented cases of horses developing diabetes. These horses are usually diagnosed in adulthood, their metabolism slows down and fat accumulates in the liver.

While diet and exercise are sufficient for most dogs or humans with diabetes, some insulin medication may be needed for your horse. Talk to your veterinarian about the right place to start helping your horse with diabetes and the available treatments.

Recently, a team of veterinarians implanted a pancreatic islet cell which secrete digestive enzymes into the horse's intestines. A few years after the surgery, the horse was reported to live a normal life. But the artificial pancreas is still at the trial stage.

Stress Reduction

While stress is commonly associated with humans, it can also affect animals in a negative way. Stress increases insulin resistance. So how does stress cause diabetes?

When a horse is stressed, the body makes the hormone cortisol, which is in charge of maintaining blood sugar level and energy. Stress stimulates the adrenal gland to produce cortisol.

If cortisol levels exceed the body’s needs for a prolonged period of time, the pancreas will have to produce more insulin to control the level of sugar in the bloodstream. Gradually, when the chronic stress is present, pancreas may stop being able to produce enough insulin.

Hormones are different in people and animals just as how type 2 diabetes manifests differently in humans than it does in animals. As of now, there is no clear scientific evidence that proves that horses have type 2 diabetes. Horses who are insulin resistant need 35-50% less insulin than non-insulin resistant horses.


Diabetic cats are pretty common and fun to have around. Your friendly little Tiger has a complex system that causes the basic dysfunction of how glucose is processed.

They have two main problems to deal with and that is, the balance of the hormone insulin and difficulties with insulin production.

Human medical science has developed expert treatments for these problems, and diabetics can live happy, healthy lives.

But, type 1, diabetes in horses takes medical intervention to a whole ‘nother level. It is a relatively new and extremely serious problem in horses that is relatively rare.

There is no cure and no treatment which will work. In order to treat the horse, veterinarians must experiment with different management programs and medicines.

Fortunately, your horse can live a normal life, despite having diabetes. However, complications could happen at any time, depending on the severity as well as management program.