A dog with Cushing’s disease that is progressing slowly

Does My Dog Have Cushing’s Disease? Symptoms, Treatment and More


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Dogs are extremely loving – and they love to talk! Sure they don’t use words… a madly flapping tail or juicy kiss says it best. According to them anyway. That said, they can’t tell you they have Cushing’s disease so you need to recognise if symptoms start to present.

Why? Because a dog with Cushing’s disease will likely have a lowered life expectancy, so get vet help fast.

If you do, your best pal has a better chance of living well. Here’s what you need to know about what Cushing’s disease is and what you can do to safeguard Bella (or Boris).

What is Cushing’s disease in dogs?

Cushing’s disease is cortisol imbalance, or over rather, overproduction.

It can happen when a dog’s adrenal glands start to overproduce cortisol. Cortisol or cortisone is a natural steroid that helps us react fast in times of fight and colloquially it’s known as ‘the stress hormone‘. In other words it’s not something anyone or their dog wants too much of.

Usually our bodies produce cortisol (or cortisone) in the right quantities, and at the right times. At these times, having it is enormously useful. Like for example when you’re in danger and need to react quickly. Or when you’re fending off an illness and your immune system needs a natural booster.

However, cortisol overproduction can lead to several serious conditions. These include (but aren’t limited to) kidney damage and diabetes. Speaking of which, read about diabetes in dogs and cats, and ways to prevent it.

The formal name for Cushing’s disease is hyperadrenocorticism. But thanks goodness, they’ve made an easier name for the common person on the street. AKA us. Now we know what to call it, let’s find out why it happens in the first place. After all, digging deep (something your garden and your dog know all about) is often where the solution (or bone) lies.

dog digs in garden

What causes Cushing’s disease in dogs?

Cushing’s disease is too much stress hormone, we get that. But why does this happen in the first place anyway? The answer is not one, but two… make that threefold.

The first most likely cause of Cushing’s disease in dogs is a tumour in the pituitary gland. Even a benign tumour can cause Cushing’s disease. Although so too can a malignant one. And what and where is the pituitary gland? Good question. It’s situated at the base of your dog’s brain and is about the size of a green pea.

The second and less common cause of Cushing’s disease in dogs is also a tumour. However the difference lies in its position in the body. A tumour on the top of the kidneys or on the adrenal glands themselves can both result in Cushing’s disease.

A third possibility is medication. If your pooch is on a high dose of cortisone steroid medication for a different condition, this can also tip the body’s natural balance out of proportion.

 a dog with cushing's disease rests


Cushing’s disease is a sneaky bugger because many of the signs can appear to simply be part of the natural aging process. I mean, hey, ageing can of course be stressful, but it needn’t be pathological for sure.

Another reason the condition may be hard to spot is that it often progresses slowly.

And of course, because your dog’s body genuinely needs cortisol for various reasons, it can affect each dog differently. It’s unlikely one pet will display all of the symptoms listed below. For this reason, you should consult your vet if your dog displays one or more of these most common symptoms of Cushing’s disease:

  • Excessive drinking
  • Heightened thirst
  • Increased panting
  • Increased urination
  • Swollen or enlarged abdomen (sometimes called a pot-belly)
  • Increased appetite
  • Decreased activity
  • Loss of muscle tone
  • Hair loss
  • Thinning of skin

And since we mentioned increased appetite, also find out reasons why a dog is not eating. And in a similar vein, why dogs eat grass (seriously, does it taste nice?)!

How to test for Cushing’s disease in dogs

If you or your vet think your pooch may have Cushing’s disease, your vet will perform a few tests to gain a better clinical understanding of what’s at play. Most likely they’ll do only a few of the below tests, then chat to you about whether more are recommended to assess the condition.

  • Physical examination
  • Blood test
  • Urinalysis
  • Adrenal function tests – although these can result in false positives when a similar disease is present.
  • Adrenal low dose testing
  • Cortisol suppression test
  • Ultrasound (to rule out possible conditions like tumours or bladder stones)
  • MRI

It’s important to note that adrenal function tests don’t always give accurate results. They may falsely indicate a positive diagnosis for Cushing’s disease when some other, but similar, condition is the real issue.

Unfortunately doing an MRI is both the costliest and most effective test. It allows your vet to accurately assess the adrenal glands.

A dog with Cushing’s disease is less active than usual

What is the treatment for Cushing’s disease in dogs?

Cushing’s disease is hard to cure but can be treated. Treatments will depend on the cause, but the most likely course of action is keeping cortisol in balance with daily tablets. These help keep your dog’s natural hormones balanced so they can live a good quality of life.

You’re probably thinking oh goodness, how do I get my dog to take daily pills. Now we know this is hard enough for any human, so why would it be any easier for a cuddlesome pup. Not to worry, read how to give medicine to your puppy for a full guide.

Look out for side effects

Earlier we mentioned that Cushing’s disease can be caused by the side effects of medication. Likewise, if your dog is on medication for Cushing’s disease you’ll want to keep an eye out for adverse side effects.

Cushing’s disease medication lowers your dog’s cortisol production. And as you know, this is a naturally occurring chemical made by the body, so controlling it can come with its own upsets. Look out for signs of weakness, vomiting or diarrhoea. If any of these are present, the medication may have suppressed the body’s natural cortisol levels too much. Speak to your vet about the best way forward.

If your dog is on steroid medication for a different condition ask your vet about the best approach to reducing the medication. Steroid medication needs proper professional guidance. If you suddenly stop giving your pup the medication or reduce it without vet advice, it can cause nasty side effects. In instances of adrenal-dependent Cushing’s disease, vets may recommend surgical removal of the tumour.

Happily, Cushing’s disease isn’t always too severe. In some cases medication won’t immediately be needed. Regardless, be committed to taking your dog in for routine vet visits to keep the condition under control.

The best time for pet insurance is now

Why is the best time to get pet insurance now? Pet insurance can protect your pup for most eventualities – including things you know will happen and things you don’t. But naturally, it can only do this for conditions that begin after you start the policy and complete the waiting periods.

Any condition that begins before your plan, or during your waiting period – even if it’s undiagnosed but symptoms have started to show – won’t be covered. The sooner you get your bow-wow a dog insurance plan, the better the cover can be. For your pet and your pocket.

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