A Veterinarian’s Guide To Cushing Disease In Dogs

Cushing's disease, also known as hyperadrenocorticism, is a condition that has both puzzled and concerned dog owners for years. It's a disorder characterized by the overproduction of cortisol by the adrenal glands. This hormone, cortisol, plays a critical role in managing stress, weight, infection, and blood sugar levels. It helps the body respond to stress, regulates metabolism, and modulates the immune system. When in excess, however, it can wreak havoc on a dog's body, leading to a range of symptoms and health issues.

As a veterinarian who has seen this disease affect many dogs of different breeds, ages, and walks of life, I want to offer a resource to pet parents who may encounter this disease in their own dog. Let's explore the details of Cushing's disease by exploring its symptoms, diagnosis, treatments, and the essential role of ongoing management.

Types of Cushing's Disease And What They Mean for Your Dog

Cushing's disease in dogs can occur naturally and is typically categorized as either pituitary-dependent or adrenal-dependent – the two common types of the disease. Pituitary-dependent Cushing's disease accounts for about 80% to 85% of cases and is caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland, leading to the overproduction of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This, in turn, stimulates the adrenal glands to produce excessive cortisol. The remaining 15% to 20% of cases are adrenal-dependent, where a tumor in one or both adrenal glands leads to the overproduction of cortisol.

The type of Cushing's disease that is affecting your dog will ultimately determine the appropriate treatment. For pituitary-dependent cases, treatment options may include medication to reduce cortisol production or surgery to remove the pituitary tumor. In the case of adrenal-dependent Cushing's, the primary treatment is typically surgical removal of the affected adrenal gland.

Veterinarians use a combination of blood tests and ultrasounds to diagnose Cushing's disease in dogs. These diagnostic tools are crucial in determining the underlying cause of the disease and may also help detect tumors on the adrenal glands, leading to a comprehensive diagnosis.

Yellow lab mix at doctor for cushing's disease.

Spotting the Symptoms: What to Look For

Cushing's disease often presents subtly, making it a challenging condition to catch early. Symptoms can mimic those of aging, often leading to misdiagnosis.

Key signs include:

  • Increased thirst and urination: Dogs with Cushing's may drink and urinate significantly more than normal.
  • Increased appetite: Affected dogs often exhibit an insatiable hunger.
  • Pot-bellied appearance: A classic symptom, this is due to the redistribution of fat in the abdomen.
  • Hair loss and thinning skin: Hair may thin out, especially on the body, while the skin becomes fragile and thin.
  • Lack of energy: Dogs might appear lethargic or less active.

Diagnosing Cushing's Disease: The Journey to Understanding

Diagnosis begins with a thorough veterinary examination and discussion of your dog's history and symptoms. However, along with a urinalysis, complete blood count and biochemical profile. Detecting Cushing's involves specific blood tests, including:

  1. ACTH stimulation test: Evaluates how the adrenal glands respond to the hormone ACTH.
  2. Low-dose dexamethasone suppression test (LDDST): Measures how well the dog's body regulates cortisol production.
  3. Imaging tests like ultrasound may also be employed to examine the adrenal glands for tumors or abnormalities.

These tests have limitations and may require more than one for confirmation or to get a positive test.

Treatment Tactics: Navigating Through Options

Treatment for Cushing's disease varies based on its cause, as we discussed in the sections above. While some veterinarians may take different approaches to treating Cushing’s disease depending on the root cause, medication is an extremely common treatment option among veterinarians. Medications like trilostane or mitotane can manage symptoms by controlling cortisol production. It's important to note that these medications may have side effects, such as loss of appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea, which pet owners should keep a close eye on and report any severe symptoms or abnormalities to their vet in order to determine if another treatment avenue is a better fit.

In some cases, surgery might be necessary to remove tumors from the adrenal glands, but veterinarians will only recommend surgery if necessary on a case by case basis. It's important to follow your vet's guidance closely, as treatment often requires precise adjustments and monitoring.

Sad mix dog, cushing's disease.The Importance of Regular Blood Work

Ongoing management of Cushing's disease includes regular blood tests to monitor cortisol levels and adjust medication as needed. These tests are vital in ensuring your dog maintains a good quality of life and help prevent the side effects of overtreatment or disease progression. Your active involvement in this process is crucial, as you are the one who knows your pet best and can provide valuable insights to the vet.

Living with Cushing's: A Statistical Snapshot

While Cushing's disease is more common in older dogs, particularly those over six years of age, it's not exclusive to any breed. However, certain breeds like Poodles, Dachshunds, and Terriers may be more predisposed. Despite the challenges, with proper management, dogs with Cushing's can continue to lead happy, active lives, showcasing their remarkable resilience.

What to Do After a Cushing’s Disease Diagnosis

Getting a Cushing’s Disease diagnosis for your dog isn’t easy to handle. But in addition to the initial diagnosis, there are several other health problems dog owners must be prepared to encounter. Dogs with Cushing’s Disease can develop other diseases or have concurrent diseases simultaneously. These diseases can include diabetes, high blood pressure, and sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome (SARDS), among others. As a dog owner, it's important to be prepared and informed that if your dog has Cushing’s Disease, they may need to treat other diseases as well. This knowledge can help you be ready and proactive in your pet's healthcare.

While there is no way to prevent Cushing’s Disease, regular exams, annual bloodwork screening, and recognizing potential clinical signs can lead to an early diagnosis and better health outcomes for your pet. The advantage of an early diagnosis is not just the ability to manage clinical signs earlier and possibly diagnose other diseases associated with Cushing’s. It's also the potential to start treatment sooner, which can significantly improve your pet's comfort and quality of life.

Cushing's disease presents a complex challenge, but with vigilant care and a strong partnership with your veterinarian, managing this condition is entirely possible. It's a testament to the advances in veterinary medicine and the dedication of pet owners everywhere. If you suspect your dog might be showing signs of Cushing's disease, remember, early veterinary intervention is key. By taking action, you can navigate this journey, ensuring your furry friend enjoys the best possible quality of life.

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This information was first seen on Belton Veterinary Clinic.

Contributing DVM