Cushing’s Disease In Dogs
June 07, 2023 | 3 min read
Updated September 25, 2023
By Sarah Milton
Summary: In this blog, we learn about Cushing’s disease in dogs. We’ll discover what causes Cushing’s disease in dogs, the symptoms to look for, and the treatment for Cushing’s disease in dogs…
What Is Cushing’s Disease In Dogs?
Cushing’s disease (also known as hyperadrenocorticism) is a condition where the body produces an excessive amount of the cortisol steroid hormone - also known as the stress hormone.
The adrenal gland sits next to the kidney; this is where cortisol is produced and a bit of regulated cortisol secreted from the adrenal gland is normally needed for the body to properly function. The pituitary gland (located at the base of the brain) tells the adrenal gland when cortisol is needed by releasing the adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH).
Cushing’s disease is often triggered by growth or tumors growing on the pituitary gland, but in some cases, it can be triggered by the same thing happening on the adrenal gland. These growths then induce abnormal production levels of cortisol.
Cushing’s disease can also come about from excessive steroid use to treat other conditions like allergies or immune disorders in dogs.
Cushing’s disease most commonly occurs in middle-aged to older dogs (8+ years). Symptoms of Cushing’s disease in dogs include:
- Excessive thirst
- Excessive urination
- Hair loss
- Weight gain
- Skin changes (skin thinning, lesions)
- Abdominal swelling (Sagging in the belly)
- General lowered immunity
The above symptoms can be mild and also are symptoms of so many other conditions and health issues (minor and serious), so obtaining a diagnosis can be fairly tricky. It can also take a year for the symptoms of Cushing’s disease to develop to noticeable levels.
Some breeds are more prone to developing Cushing’s disease. These include Dachshunds, Poodles, Boxers, Beagles, and Boston Terriers.
Your vet will want to know as much as possible about your dog’s health history, so expect lots of questions at their consultation. Your vet will also need to take a blood and urine sample and may request other tests to be sure of the diagnosis and rule out other potential, suspected diseases.
It can take a little time to diagnose Cushing’s disease because its symptoms are shared with so many other conditions. Some dogs with longstanding health conditions can even test positive for Cushing’s disease but still not actually have it! Your vet is the only person to trust in obtaining their diagnosis.
If a Cushing’s disease diagnosis is confirmed, treatment will vary dependent on the type your dog has. If the cause is identified as a tumor/growth on the pituitary gland, they will most likely be prescribed daily tablets to help manage their symptoms. These may not be prescribed immediately, as your vet may want to monitor them without medicinal interference for a while. In some cases, specialist surgery to remove the growth may be recommended.
If there’s a growth on the adrenal gland (a much less common cause), they will need to have a scan to assess the growth type (benign or malignant). Dependent on the results, they may be prescribed medication that will attempt to shrink the growth or surgery to manually remove it. Their vet will also need to assess if this growth has caused growth in other areas of the body. In some cases, if the growths have spread through the body, they can be deemed untreatable.
If Cushing’s disease has been caused by steroid use to treat another of your pup’s ailments, then they will need to be slowly weaned off their regular steroids and alternative treatment will need to be considered. Your vet will advise you on what other treatment routes are available.
Is There A Cushing’s Disease Dog Diet?
Because Cushing’s disease in dogs causes elevated levels of cortisol in the body, this can increase their cholesterol and triglyceride levels. A diet that’s low in fat, with easy-to-digest protein (like chicken and organ meats) may be advised. A vet may also suggest a low sodium diet. Ask your vet for their thoughts.
PetLab Co. Pro Tip: Changing a dog’s food should always be gradual and controlled. Read our blog on How To Switch Your Dog’s Food here.
When To Put A Dog Down With Cushing’s Disease
The average survival time for a dog with Cushing’s disease is around 2 years, but because this disease usually only occurs in senior pups, quite often they’ll pass away from old age and unrelated issues before Cushing’s takes hold.
A dog is able to lead a comfortable last chapter of their life despite having Cushing’s disease if it’s managed properly with the right medication. For example, if your dog’s Cushing’s disease is caused by a pituitary gland growth then they will potentially require medication daily for the rest of their lives and will rely on their pet parent for it. If your dog isn’t insured though, this can put some owners in severe financial difficulty as vet and medication (and in some cases surgery) bills climb higher and higher…
If you find yourself in this situation, talk frankly to your vet about what the best solution for your dog is. If you can’t afford regular medication or the recommended surgery to help manage and better your dog’s condition, then euthanizing your dog may be the kindest option.
This is why you should always insure your pets from the moment you become their owner. This will make sure your fur baby’s medical bills are covered, before any potential illnesses and long-term conditions (like Cushing’s disease in dogs) arise.
"Cushing's Disease In Dogs" Sep 11. 2019, Blue Cross https://www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-advice/cushings-disease-in-dogs
Author Dr. Grognet, Jeff "Cushing's Disease In Dogs" May 21. 2021, American Kennel Club https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/cushings-disease-in-dogs/
Comes from a family of animal lovers and got to grow up with a menagerie of pets! I believe owning a pet is a privilege and I love researching and creating informative, fun content for fellow pet owners to help their furry friends have the happiest and healthiest lives. When I’m not writing blogs, you can find me sharing a walk with my pet dachshund or at a yoga class!