Critter Culture
What Is Cushing's Disease in Dogs?

What Is Cushing's Disease in Dogs?

Critter Culture Staff



As our dogs get older, they can develop health issues just like we do. One common condition in older dogs is Cushing's disease, also known as hyperadrenocorticism (HAC). Understanding this disease and spotting it early can help manage it better and improve your dog's quality of life. Cushing’s disease can be tricky to diagnose because its symptoms often resemble those of other conditions, making early awareness even more crucial for effective management and treatment.


What is Cushing’s disease?

cortisol stress dog delectus / Getty Images

Cushing's disease happens when a dog's body makes too much cortisol, a hormone that helps with stress, weight control, infection-fighting, and blood sugar levels. Too much cortisol can weaken the immune system and cause various health problems. The disease is named after Dr. Harvey Cushing, who first described it. Cortisol plays several important roles in a dog's body, including helping to regulate metabolism and the immune response.

However, when cortisol levels are too high for an extended period, it can lead to a variety of complications that impact a dog’s overall health and well-being.


The three types of Cushing’s disease

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Pituitary-dependent Hyperadrenocorticism (PDH)

This is the most common type, affecting 80-90% of dogs with Cushing’s disease. It’s caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland at the base of the brain, which makes the gland produce too much ACTH, a hormone that signals the adrenal glands to make more cortisol. This overproduction of ACTH leads to a continuous cycle of excessive cortisol release, causing the symptoms associated with Cushing’s disease to develop gradually over time.

Adrenal Tumor Hypercortisolism

This type affects about 15-20% of dogs with Cushing’s disease. It’s caused by a tumor on one of the adrenal glands, which are located near the kidneys. These tumors can be either benign or malignant. Benign tumors can sometimes be managed effectively with surgery, while malignant tumors pose a greater challenge, often requiring a combination of surgery and ongoing medical treatment to control the disease.

Iatrogenic Cushing’s Disease

This type is caused by the long-term use of steroids for treating other medical conditions. The body ends up with too much cortisol because of the medication. This form of Cushing's disease is often reversible if the use of steroid medications is carefully reduced or discontinued under veterinary supervision, but the process must be managed to avoid other complications.

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Breeds prone to Cushing’s Disease

breeds diagnosed dachshunds lumenphoto / Getty Images

Some dog breeds are more likely to get Cushing’s disease, including Poodles, Dachshunds, Boston Terriers, Boxers, and Beagles. Most dogs diagnosed with this disease are older than eight years. It’s important for owners of these breeds to be particularly vigilant about monitoring for symptoms, especially as their dogs age. Early detection can lead to better management of the disease and a higher quality of life for affected dogs.

For breeds more commonly diagnosed with Cushing's disease that may experience increased shedding, consider using a Dog Brush for Shedding to gently manage their coat.


Early signs and symptoms of Cushing’s disease

cortisol stimulates appetite AVAVA / Getty Images

Because the signs mimic aging, the early symptoms often go unnoticed. Most dogs with Cushing’s disease experience a significant increase in appetite. This is because cortisol stimulates the appetite. Owners also notice an increase in their dog’s water consumption. Here are a few more signs and symptoms to watch for:

Early symptoms

  • Frequent urination and possible housebreaking accidents.
  • Tiredness and more panting than usual.

These symptoms are often subtle at first and can be mistaken for normal aging. However, as the disease progresses, these signs become more pronounced and can significantly impact a dog's daily life.

Progressive symptoms

  • A pot-bellied appearance.
  • Hair loss, especially on the flanks, neck, and perineum.
  • Thinning skin and slow healing of wounds.
  • Skin infections and dark-colored spots.
  • Muscle loss and weakness.

These more advanced symptoms can make daily activities difficult for your dog and can lead to further health complications if not managed appropriately. Regular veterinary check-ups are essential for monitoring these changes.

As you monitor your pet for early signs and symptoms of Cushing's disease, Hemp Oil for Dogs and Cats can be a soothing addition to their regimen.



veterinarian blood test simonkr / Getty Images

To diagnose Cushing’s disease, a vet will start with a thorough physical exam and a review of the dog’s medical history. Blood and urine tests can show signs that point to Cushing’s, like diluted urine and high levels of certain liver enzymes. If these tests suggest Cushing’s, the vet might do further tests, like:

  • ACTH Stimulation Test: Measures how well the adrenal glands respond to ACTH.
  • Low-Dose Dexamethasone Suppression Test (LDDS): Checks how cortisol levels change in response to a synthetic steroid.
  • Ultrasound: Helps detect tumors on the adrenal glands.

These tests help confirm the diagnosis and determine the underlying cause of the disease, which is crucial for choosing the right treatment plan. Accurate diagnosis is key to effectively managing Cushing’s disease and improving your dog’s quality of life.


Treatment options

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  • Medications: The most common treatment is medication to reduce cortisol production, like trilostane (Vetoryl) or mitotane (Lysodren). Regular check-ups and blood tests are needed to adjust the medication dosage.
  • Surgery or Radiation: In some cases, surgery or radiation might be used to treat the pituitary tumor, but these options are less common. The choice of treatment depends on the size and location of the tumor, as well as the overall health of the dog.

Each treatment option has its own risks and benefits, which should be discussed thoroughly with your vet.

For Adrenal Tumor

  • Surgery: If the tumor is benign, surgery can cure the disease. Malignant tumors are harder to treat, and surgery might only help for a while. In cases where surgery is not possible, other treatments like medication or radiation may be considered to manage the symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.
  • Medication: If surgery isn’t an option, medications similar to those used for PDH can help manage the disease. These medications require careful monitoring and regular adjustments to ensure they are effectively controlling cortisol levels without causing adverse side effects.

For Iatrogenic Cushing’s Disease

  • Gradual Reduction of Steroids: The vet will slowly reduce the steroid medication causing the problem, but this needs to be done carefully to avoid other health issues. It’s important to follow the vet’s instructions closely to safely taper off the steroids while managing the original condition that required steroid treatment.


Cushing’s disease prognosis

vet treatment adrenal KatarzynaBialasiewicz / Getty Images

The outlook for dogs with Cushing’s disease depends on the type and how well it’s managed. Many dogs with PDH can live normal lives for years with proper treatment. Dogs with adrenal tumors have a variable prognosis depending on whether the tumor is benign or malignant. Regular vet visits and careful monitoring are crucial for managing the disease effectively. By staying vigilant and following the treatment plan, you can help your dog lead a comfortable and happy life despite the diagnosis.


Behavioral and mental changes

medications prognosis treatment 3bugsmom / Getty Images

Cushing’s disease can also affect a dog’s behavior and mental health. You might notice your dog seems more anxious or irritable. Regular mental stimulation, gentle exercise, and a consistent routine can help manage these changes. Understanding these behavioral shifts is important for providing a supportive environment and ensuring your dog’s overall well-being. Adjusting activities and routines to your dog’s changing needs can make a big difference in their quality of life.


Nutritional strategies

owner dogs comfort Halfpoint / Getty Images

A good diet is important for managing Cushing’s disease. High-fiber, low-fat foods can help control weight gain. Foods rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids can reduce inflammation and support overall health. It’s best to work with a veterinary nutritionist to create a diet plan tailored to your dog’s needs. Proper nutrition can help manage symptoms and improve your dog's overall health, making it a crucial part of the treatment plan.


Financial planning for Cushing’s Disease management

sad dog

Treating Cushing’s disease can be expensive, with costs for medications, regular vet visits, and special diets. Pet insurance might cover some of these costs, but it’s important to check the specifics of your policy. Setting aside a healthcare fund for your pet can also help manage these expenses. Planning ahead and understanding the potential costs can make it easier to provide your dog with the best possible care without financial strain.


Quality of life and end-of-life decisions

dog eating

As the disease progresses, focus on your dog’s quality of life. Regularly assess their happiness and ability to enjoy daily activities. Your vet can provide guidance on pain management and mobility aids. When it’s time to consider end-of-life care, support from pet bereavement groups can help you make compassionate decisions. Ensuring your dog’s comfort and dignity is the most important aspect of managing their care as they age and the disease progresses.

Wrapping it up

Cushing’s disease is a serious condition, but with proper understanding and management, many dogs can live happy, comfortable lives. Regular vet check-ups, a good diet, and careful monitoring are key. If you notice any symptoms in your dog, don’t hesitate to consult your vet. Sharing your experiences and seeking advice from other dog owners can also be helpful. By staying informed and proactive, you can help your furry friend enjoy their golden years to the fullest, ensuring they receive the care and support they need every step of the way.

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What Is Cushing's Disease in Dogs?

What Is Cushing's Disease in Dogs?

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