Understanding Cushing’s Disease in Dogs and How to Help Your Furry Friend Cope
Veterinarian Reviewed by Dr. Janice Huntingford, DVM on June 28, 2018
Posted in Cushing's Disease
Dog owners are very in-tune with their canine best friends; you know how often they eat and drink, when they go to the bathroom, how much they like to play and much more. This is why many dog owners get immediate red flags when they notice something as simple as their dog suddenly drinking a lot more water or having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
These two signs—excessive thirst and urination—are tell-tale symptoms of a common disease that is actually quite difficult to diagnose: Cushing’s disease. This disorder, also known as hyperadrenocorticism, involves an excess of cortisol in your dog’s body.
If you suspect your dog may be suffering from Cushing’s disease due to its displayed symptoms, read on to learn more about what it is and how you can help your beloved pup get through it.
What is Cushing’s disease?
Cushing’s disease is an endocrine disorder that results in an excess amount of the natural hormone cortisol in the body. Cortisol in normal amounts helps your dog respond to stress, monitor its weight and regulate the immune system. Too little cortisol can result in health problems, as can too much.
The disease is a relatively common endocrine disorder in middle-aged and older dogs and it may be caused by one of three things:
- The most common cause is a benign (non-spreading) tumor on the pituitary gland, which rests at the base of the brain. Pituitary-dependent hyperadrenocorticism (PDH) causes 80-90% of Cushing’s disease cases.
- The disease may also be caused by a benign or malignant tumor on the adrenal glands, which are located near the kidneys and are responsible for producing cortisol. Adrenal-dependent hyperadrenocorticism (ADH) occurs in 15-20% of dogs with Cushing’s disease.
- The final cause is due to excess cortisol being absorbed by the body through medications or steroids used to treat another existing disorder. This is called Iatrogenic Cushing’s disease.
Tell-tale signs of disease
Many of the symptoms of Cushing’s disease are shared with other common health problems in dogs, which makes the disorder difficult to diagnose. Veterinarians need to analyze symptoms as they relate to full body health and test results to determine Cushing’s disease as the final problem. Symptoms may include:
- Excessive thirst and urination
- Increased appetite
- Excessive panting
- Bloated appearance
- Recurring skin and urinary tract infections
- Hair loss
- Muscular atrophy
Treating Cushing’s Disease
Treatment for Cushing’s disease can be a lifelong endeavor for your dog and will require close monitoring and routine check-ups with a veterinarian to maintain a health and wellness plan. You and your pooch must be prepared for extended treatment to weather this disease.
- Iatrogenic Cushing’s disease: If the Cushing’s disease has been determined to be caused by steroid medications, your dog should be weaned off medications slowly to stop the increased levels of cortisol in the body. Once the medications have stopped, the Cushing’s disease symptoms should disappear, although the symptoms of the previous disorder may manifest again and need to be treated.
- PDH: If the disease is caused by a pituitary tumor, your vet may not begin treatment until your dog’s symptoms become more serious. More intense symptoms may be indicated by an increase in blood pressure, skin infections, excessive panting and increased drinking and eating.
Once your dog exudes routine symptoms, your vet will likely prescribe one of two common medications, mitotane (Lysodren) or trilostane (Vetoryl). Both medications come with the risk of serious side effects, meaning your dog’s health will need to be monitored closely while taking the medication. You may also choose to use supplements to help support adrenal gland function during the course of medication treatment.
Side effects may include lethargy, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite and difficulty waking. Any evidence of side effects should result in contacting your veterinarian immediately, so your dog’s medication can be regulated.
- ADH: If the Cushing’s disease has been caused by an adrenal tumor, your vet will need to determine whether the tumor is benign or malignant before determining treatment. Both tumors can usually be removed through surgery, but malignant tumor cases will need to be monitored closely after to ensure the tumor does not return.
Living with Cushing’s disease
Dealing with Cushing’s disease in your dog can be extremely challenging. This is why it is so important to stay attentive to your dog’s behaviors and symptoms, so you make sure you’re taking it to the vet whenever necessary, so it does not live in pain or discomfort. By having thorough communications with your veterinarian, you should be able to accurately diagnose your pooch and create a treatment plan that will let it live out its years happy and comfortable.
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Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan