Cushing's disease in dogs

Health and Wellbeing

Predominantly a condition that impacts middle-aged and older pooches, Cushing’s disease, also known as hyperadrenocorticism, is a peculiar illness caused by the overproduction of the steroid hormone cortisol.

Senior dog

The symptoms of Cushing’s disease can often be mistaken by owners as just signs that their dog is aging. Consequently, owners sometimes miss the opportunity to get treatment that would enable their furry friend to live a happier, more comfortable life.

Awareness from dog parents of the symptoms of Cushing’s disease is essential, to ensure every pooch receives the necessary treatment as quickly and efficiently as possible.

WHAT CAUSES CUSHING’S DISEASE IN DOGS?

Cushing’s disease occurs when a dog’s body produces an excessive amount of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a vital steroid hormone that dogs are dependent on in order for their bodies to function properly, helping to regulate weight, control blood sugars and battle infections.

Producing the appropriate amount of cortisol all depends on the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands.

The pituitary gland is an incredibly tiny gland situated right at the base of the brain and even though it’s tiny in size, it’s huge in importance. It works by sending messages down to the adrenal glands, which are located near the kidneys, telling them how much cortisol they need to produce. Cushing's disease is essentially the opposite of Addison's disease, which is when the body doesn't produce enough cortisol.

TYPES OF CUSHING’S DISEASE

There are three main types of Cushing’s disease, which are pituitary, adrenal and iatrogenic.

PITUITARY

A tumour on the pituitary gland in the brain is the most common cause of Cushing’s disease, prevalent in the majority of pups diagnosed with the condition. When a tumour appears on this gland, messaging to the adrenal gland is disrupted and will cause complications like excessive cortisol production.

Although a tumour in the brain may sound terrifying and severe, it’s actually relatively benign, only causing the issue of Cushing’s disease.

ADRENAL

A growth on one or both of the adrenal glands is another cause of Cushing’s disease, making the gland overactive in cortisol production. Tumours growing on the adrenal gland are much rarer than on the pituitary gland.

IATROGENIC

Many dogs are required to take steroids throughout their life for various conditions. Unfortunately, prolonged usage of steroids can lead to your dog developing Cushing’s disease.

WHAT ARE THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF CUSHING’S DISEASE IN DOGS?

  • Thirstier than usual
  • Hungrier
  • More toilet trips, even having accidents in the house
  • Abdominal swelling (pot belly)
  • Hair loss, also struggling to produce more hair
  • Thinning skin
  • Lethargic and inactive
  • Panting
  • Skin infections

Cushing’s disease can influence the onset of diabetes, blood clots and infections. Therefore, if you notice your dog acting or looking different, consult your vet as quickly as possible.

HOW WILL CUSHING’S DISEASE IN DOGS BE DIAGNOSED?

Signs of the condition can often be overlooked as just signs that your dog is reaching their old age, or it can even be confused with other medical concerns due to the various similar symptoms. This makes Cushing’s disease rather difficult to diagnose.

For a confirmed diagnosis, your vet will need a clear report of your dog’s medical history and to run a few tests. As diagnosis is so tricky, it’s often a case of the vet eliminating other possible medical problems first.

HOW WILL CUSHING’S DISEASE IN DOGS BE TREATED?

This condition has an impact on how your pooch behaves, how they look and how they feel, and it sadly doesn’t have a complete cure. Despite this, by following a veterinary treatment plan, dogs living with Cushing’s disease mostly see a long, healthy, significantly improved life.

Dependent on the type of Cushing’s disease your dog has been diagnosed with, your vet will recommend the optimum treatment plan for your pooch.

If your dog is experiencing a tumour in the adrenal gland, it’s possible that the growth can be removed in surgery, unless it has spread to other areas in which surgery won’t be possible.

On the other hand, when Cushing’s disease is triggered by a tumour on the pituitary gland in the brain, removal in surgery won’t be an option. Medication prescribed by the vet will be the best treatment plan for these dogs, allowing them to continue living happily and healthily.

Iatrogenic Cushing’s disease works slightly differently, with the best treatment option being to gradually lessen your pup’s steroid intake. However, your dog will have been taking steroids to treat a different medical issue, so weaning your dog off this steroid medication may cause the original ailment to return.

It’s essential to discuss the best treatment plans with your vet to get your pooch back to their former, happy self once again.

CAN I HELP AT HOME?

To help at home, make sure your dog always has access to water to keep up with their increased thirst levels, alongside regular bathroom breaks.

Understandably, it might be frustrating that your dog constantly needs their water bowl topping up or that they must go outside for a toilet break multiple times in an hour. However, once your pooch is on the right medication, these symptoms should start to subside.

Feeding your pooch a nutritionally balanced diet can work wonders in their senior years. Keeping your dog healthy in all aspects of their life is fundamental if your older pup has Cushing’s disease, as the impacts of this condition can really change how your dog feels in themselves.

Wholesome, natural ingredients help to provide your dog with that lease of life they might’ve lost since developing Cushing’s disease. Even specific ingredients such as omega 3 fatty acids that are included in a food like Pure can help subside some symptoms of Cushing’s disease, such as poor skin.

Sadly, this disease is for life, meaning that it’ll take a lot of commitment from you. Treatment will be pricey and ongoing but it’ll significantly improve your dog’s condition.

Also, constant monitoring of how your dog is looking and acting is important, to make sure you can act quickly if you think anything has changed.

Our senior pups deserve everything we can give them, so trying to stay on top of their treatment is essential.

ARE SOME DOG BREEDS MORE PRONE TO CUSHING’S DISEASE?

As we know, Cushing’s disease is quite tricky to diagnose, leading to some pups not getting the required treatment. So, by being aware of if your breed is susceptible to the condition, it might help you recognise the symptoms quicker and ultimately, get a diagnosis.

Although all breeds can develop Cushing’s disease, there are a number of breeds mentioned and agreed by vets to be more predisposed to the condition.

For example, Dachshunds, Poodles (especially Miniature Poodles), Staffordshire Bull Terriers and Boston Terriers are unanimously agreed by vets to be prone to Cushing’s disease. Some vets also suspect that Boxers, Cocker Spaniels, German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers are commonly known to develop this condition.

CAN CUSHING’S DISEASE BE PREVENTED?

There is no way to prevent Cushing’s disease, so the best thing any dog parent can do is just be aware of the signs. Building awareness of the disease is crucial, the faster that owners can recognise the symptoms in their dog, the faster they can get the best treatment.

Cushing’s disease can seemingly have a dramatic impact on your dog’s wellbeing, changing their behaviour and appearance. However, with the right treatment and management, your pooch will more than likely return to their normal, cheery self in no time.

Dr Andrew Miller BVSc MRCVS

Written by: Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS

Andy graduated from Bristol University in 2010 and sees nutrition as a foundation for our pet's wellbeing and takes a common-sense approach. We are what we eat, and it shouldn't be any different for our pets.

Sources
  1. Cushing’s syndrome – An epidemiological study based on a canine population of 21,281 dogs Open veterinary journal, 9 (1), February 2019, 27–32, doi.org/10.4314/ovj.v9i1.5