Dog Health and Nutrition 

Cushing’s disease in dogs: symptoms and treatment

Your dog’s energy levels will likely decrease as they age, but did you know this could indicate something other than age? In some cases, this is one of the signs of a disease known as Cushing’s syndrome in dogs. Here’s what you need to know.

What is Cushing’s Disease in Dogs?

Cushing’s disease, also known as hyperadrenocorticism, is more common in dogs over 7 years of age. The disease involves an excessive production of cortisol, a naturally produced steroid often referred to as the stress hormone. Certain levels of this hormone in the body are important and contribute to functions such as the immune system or the fight or flight response. However, Cushing’s unusually high levels cause an imbalance in hormone regulation in the body and lead to the symptoms associated with the disease.

The most common cause of Cushing’s disease in dogs is a benign tumor of the pituitary gland, a structure found in the brain. The pituitary gland sends messages to the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. In cases of pituitary-dependent Cushing’s disease, these messages continue to be sent to the adrenal glands even when there is already enough cortisol, resulting in higher levels in the body.

More rarely, Cushing’s disease can be caused by tumors of the adrenal glands themselves. This is an adrenal gland-dependent disease. It can also occur after a pet is given high doses of steroid treatment for another condition.

Symptoms of Cushing in Dogs?

Cushing in dogs often goes unnoticed for a while and tends to progress very gradually. Because the disease affects middle-aged and older dogs, symptoms are often initially attributed to aging.

Cortisol is a vital hormone for various functions and organs, which means that it works in different ways in the body. Therefore, increased production of the hormone can affect a number of different body systems and lead to different symptoms, many of which are non-specific. The list of symptoms of Cushing in dogs varies from person to person and even if you don’t notice all of the signs listed below, you should consult the veterinarian.

Here are some of the most common symptoms of Cushing in dogs:

  • Increased thirst and appetite
  • Increased urination
  • Lethargy or decreased activity
  • Hair loss
  • Thin skin
  • Potbelly appearance
  • Increased wheezing
  • General loss of muscle tone

How is Cushing’s Disease Diagnosed in Dogs?

Many of the symptoms of Cushing’s disease are non-specific and can suggest other underlying conditions. The vet will ask a series of questions to help understand what symptoms you have noticed in your pet. They will also do a thorough clinical examination to check for any visible signs of illness.

The veterinarian can then recommend appropriate diagnostic tests. Usually, this starts with blood tests and often includes ruling out other diseases. Urine tests can also provide useful information. Depending on the results, imaging such as an abdominal ultrasound may be recommended.

How can Cushing’s disease be treated in dogs?

The treatment and management plan will depend on the type of Cushing’s disease your dog was diagnosed with. In most cases, daily tablets are recommended to keep cortisol production under control and to keep hormone levels in a healthier range. Regular tests with your vets ensure that the treatment is working properly.

If your dog is on Cushing’s disease medication and shows signs such as sudden weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, or even breakdown, it is best to call your veterinarian in an emergency. This could indicate that cortisol levels have been suppressed too much and that your dog may be experiencing an “Addison Crisis” due to insufficient cortisol levels.

In some cases of adrenal disease, the veterinarian may recommend surgery to remove the tumor. This procedure has a better prognosis if the tumor is benign rather than malignant.

If your dog develops symptoms of Cushing and is taking steroids to treat another condition, always contact your veterinarian first before decreasing or stopping steroid treatment. It is important to make sure that your dog is not taken off the steroid drug too quickly, as this can cause serious side effects. The veterinarian will safely guide you through the process of safely withdrawing treatment if necessary.

Cushing in dogs can be mild, which means your pet may not need treatment. They should be checked regularly by veterinarians and should be monitored closely for disease progression in case they need to start medical treatment at a later date.

Corgi dog with vet check

Can Cushing Be Cured In Dogs?

Most cases of Cushing’s disease cannot be cured but can be treated successfully over many years. Once started, medical treatment will continue for the rest of your dog’s life and regular veterinary visits must be arranged to monitor your pet’s health over the long term. In cases of the adrenal-dependent disease, surgical removal of a benign tumor can be curative.

Once medical treatment has started, you should find that your dog is gradually returning to its normal self. Your thirst, appetite, and energy should normalize within a few days to weeks, but fur regrowth will take several months.

Next, read about how to care for your dog during the golden years. If you’re not sure if your dog is older, here’s how to find out.

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