Effect of dietary carbohydrates and time of year on ACTH and cortisol concentrations in adult and aged horses

S. I. Jacob, R. J. Geor, P. S.D. Weber, P. A. Harris, M. E. McCue

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Diagnosis of equine pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) remains a challenge as multiple factors (stress, exercise, and time of year) influence ACTH and cortisol concentrations. To assess endocrine status in a study designed to evaluate the effects of age and diet on glucose and insulin dynamics, we performed thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) stimulation tests and overnight dexamethasone suppression tests in March, May, August, and October on 16 healthy Thoroughbred and Standardbred mares and geldings. Horses were grouped by age: adult (mean ± SD; 8.8 ± 2.9 yr; n = 8) and aged (20.6 ± 2.1 yr; n = 8). None of the horses showed clinical signs (hypertrichosis, regional adiposity, skeletal muscle atrophy, lethargy) of pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction. Horses were randomly assigned to groups of 4, blocked for age, and fed grass hay plus 4 isocaloric concentrate diets (control, starch-rich, fiber-rich, and sugar-rich) using a balanced Latin square design. Data were analyzed using a multivariable linear mixed regression model. Baseline ACTH was significantly higher in aged horses (mean ± standard error of the mean; 60.0 ± 10.7 pg/mL) adapted to the starch-rich diet compared to adult horses (15.7 ± 12.0 pg/mL) on the same diet (P = 0.017). After controlling for age and diet, baseline ACTH concentrations were significantly increased in October (57.7 ± 7.1 pg/mL) compared to March (13.2 ± 7.1 pg/mL; P < 0.001), May (12.4 ± 7.1 pg/mL; P < 0.001), and August (24.2 ± 7.1 pg/mL; P < 0.001), whereas post-TRH ACTH was higher in August (376.6 ± 57.6 pg/mL) and October (370.9 ± 57.5 pg/mL) compared to March (101.9 ± 57.3 pg/mL; P < 0.001) and May (74.5 ± 57.1 pg/mL; P < 0.001). Aged horses had significantly higher post-dexamethasone cortisol on the starch-rich diet (0.6 ± 0.1 μg/dL) compared to the sugar-rich diet (0.2 ± 0.1 μg/dL; P = 0.021). Post-dexamethasone cortisol was significantly higher in October (0.6 ± 0.1 μg/dL) compared to March (0.3 ± 0.1 μg/dL; P = 0.005), May (0.2 ± 0.1 μg/dL; P < 0.001), and August (0.3 ± 0.1 μg/dL; P = 0.004). Breed did not influence ACTH or cortisol measurements. In conclusion, in addition to age and time of year, diet is a potential confounder as animals on a starch-rich diet may be incorrectly diagnosed with pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)15-22
Number of pages8
JournalDomestic Animal Endocrinology
StatePublished - Apr 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the WALTHAM Center for Pet Nutrition and Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine .

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 Elsevier Inc.

Copyright 2018 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)
  • Horse
  • Nutrition
  • Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID)
  • Season
  • Thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH)


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