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Pet Health


Cushing’s Disease in Dogs

Meet Doug. This sweet 13-year-old boy has Cushing’s Disease. He was diagnosed about 3 years ago but thanks to his…

Meet Doug. This sweet 13-year-old boy has Cushing’s Disease. He was diagnosed about 3 years ago but thanks to his parent’s loving care, he lives a full and happy life.

Approximately 100,000 dogs each year are diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease in the United States. Despite that seemingly small fragment of the overall dog population, there is an increasing interest in the disease. Maybe the interest stems from the symptoms alone, in that many of the symptoms are common with other diseases and disorders: Increased appetite, increased thirst, increased urination, panting, and muscle weakness. It is difficult to diagnose. Because of this overlap of symptoms with other illnesses, and the complexity of a proper diagnosis, the disease could be more prevalent than we think.

Symptoms of Cushing’s Disease in Dogs

Doug’s mom knew that something was wrong when he started using the bathroom in the house. That is usually the first symptom a dog owner will notice. The disease targets middle age to senior dogs that are well past potty training, so when an adult dog has a few accidents in the home, it is definitely a red flag. In hindsight, Doug’s mom did recall him drinking more water than usual. Excessive water drinking is usually the second symptom a dog owner will notice. Other symptoms other than those listed above include hair loss, persistent bladder infections, poor skin healing, a distended or bloated abdomen, and thinning of the skin. When the disease has advanced, firm patches are sometimes observed on the trunk or abdomen. This is referred to as calcinosis cutis, caused by a calcium deposit in the skin. Doug’s Mom remembers his abdomen feeling “hardened” which was most likely a calcium deposit. Sometimes symptoms of Cushing’s disease in dogs take a long time to develop, so the disease could progress considerably by the time the dog is actually diagnosed.

What is Cushing’s Disease?

The original name for Cushing’s Disease was polyglandular syndrome. It is now often referred to as hyperadrenocorticism, and if you break that down, it is much more descriptive than the name “Cushing’s Disease”. It happens when a dog (or a person, for that matter) produces too much of the hormone, cortisol, which is released by the cortex of the adrenal glands. Hyper (as in too much) adrenal (referring to the adrenal glands) and corticism (regarding cortisol)… just makes sense. Anyway, it was named “Cushing’s Disease” after the famous neurosurgeon, Harvey Williams Cushing who first discovered it in the early 1900’s.

You may be familiar with Cortisol, the hormone that is released into the body when someone is under stress. There is a lot of talk about cortisol in the health community these days. When the human body experiences chronic stress – which many do in today’s highly stressful climate – cortisol is continually released. Too much cortisol in the bloodstream for a sustained period of time can cause unhealthy abdominal weight gain, as well as negatively affecting many other critical bodily functions.

What would cause our dogs – in their low-stress lifestyles – to produce too much cortisol? A tumor is the ugly culprit. In a majority of cases (85 -90%), a non-cancerous tumor in the pituitary gland triggers the production of way too much cortisol. In some cases, it is a tumor on the adrenal glands themselves that is responsible. The adrenal tumor is sometimes malignant and it grows aggressively. Fortunately, it is the least common of the two types of tumors. So then, there are then two major types of Cushing’s disease: Pituitary or Adrenal. Aside from removal of the tumor itself, there is no cure for pituitary or adrenal Cushing’s disease. It is a lifelong condition that can be treated with medication and management.

There is a third type of Cushing’s disease that I need to mention. This one is “curable”, so to speak. It is called Iatrogenic Cushing’s Disease. Iatrogenic means that an illness is caused by medical examination or treatment. In this case, it is caused by an excessive use of steroids. If the dog is safely removed from steroid treatment, the disease will simply go away.

Cushing’s disease can affect any breed, but most often in Staffordshire terriers, Boston terriers, Yorkies, Poodles, Dachshunds, and Boxers. It is usually seen in dogs from the age of 6 and up. Life expectancy of a dog diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease varies, based on a variety of factors: age, other health issues, genetics, and plain old resiliency. You will see life expectancy range from 2 – 6 years. It is a true guess.

Cushing’s Disease Diagnosis and Treatment

There is no single test for Cushing’s Disease in dogs. Along with the recognition of the dog’s clinical signs, combinations of tests are used to come up with a diagnosis. The medications to treat Pituitary and Adrenal Cushing’s disease have many negative side effects. A dog will need frequent vet visits and blood tests during treatment to make sure they are tolerating the medication well. Adrenal tumor surgery may be recommended for adrenal tumor removal but is rarely performed on a pituitary tumor. Radiation may be suggested to reduce the size of a pituitary tumor.

Many people choose not to have their adult or elderly dog undergo surgery to remove the tumor and hesitate to place them on drugs that could cause them to be even sicker. In Doug’s case, his parents chose to treat him with an all-natural nutritional supplement. Doug takes two a day and is doing very well with no side effects. It is important to Doug’s parent’s that he has a good quality of life.

What to do if you think your dog may have Cushing’s Disease

If you suspect your dog may have Cushing’s Disease, visit your veterinarian as soon as possible. It would be helpful for you to take a urine specimen with you on your visit. Be prepared for a lengthy visit, or even a drop off/pick up so that your veterinarian can perform a series of blood tests and perhaps an ultrasound or x-rays to check for enlarged adrenal glands or enlarged liver.

If your dog is diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease, take comfort in knowing that when managed, your dog can still have a normal, happy, pain-free life. They can continue to eat their favorite foods and treats, go for walks, play with other dogs, cuddle with their family, fetch balls, and anything else they feel like doing! Close monitoring by your veterinarian and regular check-ups are key.

As for Doug, his mom is happy that he no longer has accidents in the house. He looks great and is thriving. His parents are dedicated to making sure he lives pain-free and comfortably. We wish him a long and robust life!

If you have general questions about taking care of your wonderful pups, feel free to give Holiday Barn a call to talk with us and to see how we can help!

Many thanks to Holiday Barn Pet ResortsProfessional Dog Trainer, McKenzie, and her parents for sharing Doug’s story with us!

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