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Causes, Symptoms & Treatments for Cushing’s Disease in Dogs

Cushing's disease can lead to serious, sometimes life-threatening conditions and illnesses. Our Los Angeles vets explain the causes of this condition, in addition to common symptoms and treatments.

What is Cushing's disease in dogs?

Cushing's disease, also known as hyperadrenocorticism, is a severe health condition that leads to the overproduction of cortisol (cortisone) in the body by the adrenal glands. This can put dogs at risk of developing several serious health conditions and illnesses, ranging from diabetes to kidney damage. In some cases, it can even be life-threatening.

Cushing's disease is typically caused by a benign or malignant tumor in the pituitary gland, a small gland located at the base of the brain. However, in some cases, the tumor may be located in the adrenal glands, which are situated just above the kidneys.

It's worth noting that prolonged use of steroids can also lead to the overproduction of cortisol, known as iatrogenic Cushing's syndrome.

What are the symptoms of Cushing's disease in dogs?

Common signs of Cushing's disease in dogs include:

  • Panting
  • Lethargy
  • Increased appetite 
  • Thinning of the skin
  • Excessive thirst or drinking 
  • Hair loss 
  • Enlarged abdomen, potbellied appearance 
  • Frequent urination

If your dog has Cushing's disease, you may observe at least one of the following symptoms. However, all of these signs are not necessary. It's crucial to contact your veterinarian immediately if your dog is showing any of these symptoms.

Dogs with Cushing's disease are at a higher risk of developing blood clots, high blood pressure, kidney damage, and diabetes.

How is Cushing's disease diagnosed?

Your veterinarian will perform a physical exam and run appropriate tests to determine the cause of your pet's symptoms and rule out other health issues. These tests may include a complete blood panel, urine culture, urinalysis, and/or full chemistry panel, but they are not limited to them. 

Your vet may order adrenal function tests, testing adrenal low-dose, and high-dose dexamethasone suppression tests. That said, adrenal function tests can give false positives when another disease with similar clinical symptoms is present. 

An ultrasound may help to rule out other conditions that could potentially be causing your dog's symptoms. Other diseases that can cause similar symptoms include bladder stones, gallbladder disease, chronic inflammatory liver disease, gastrointestinal disease, and tumors in the liver or spleen. 

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is the most effective diagnostic test for Cushing's disease in dogs. It allows veterinarians to examine the adrenal glands. However, it can be an expensive testing method.

At Ambassador Dog & Cat Hospital, our veterinarians are trained to diagnose and treat a range of health conditions. We can access advanced diagnostic imaging tools and treatment methods to identify and manage these issues.

What are the treatments for Cushing’s disease in dogs?

Cushing's disease in dogs is typically treated with internal medicine for dogs that helps decrease the amount of cortisone that the adrenal glands produce. The only way to cure Cushing's disease is to remove the tumor. However, because of the complexity and risks of surgery, most cases are treated with medication.

Treatments will vary depending on the type of Cushing’s disease your dog has.

Pituitary tumor. Treatment of pituitary-dependent Cushing’s disease is the most complicated. Two drugs, trilostane and mitotane are commonly used. 

Adrenal tumor. Treatment of an adrenal-dependent Cushing’s disease usually requires major abdominal surgery. If the entire tumor is able to be removed and the tumor is not malignant, there is a good chance that your dog will regain normal health. 

Iatrogenic Cushing’s disease. Treatment requires gradual discontinuation of the steroid, usually resulting in a recurrence of the disease that was being treated by the steroid.  

After starting the medication treatments, your dog will need to see the vet regularly for ACTH stimulation tests until the excessive production of cortisone is controlled.  

Over the lifetime of your pet, routine monitoring of blood tests and medication adjustments need to be made. 

Is Cushing's disease fatal in dogs?

The prognosis for your dog Cushing's disease and the conditions associated with it depends on the cause of the disease. Early detection and treatment are crucial in limiting the severity of the disease.

To minimize the symptoms of Cushing's disease, observing your dog diligently and managing the disease for the long term is important. While most dogs can be successfully treated with medication, incorrect dosages can lead to mild or severe side effects. Therefore, monitoring your pet carefully and scheduling follow-up blood tests is essential.

Dogs that are not adequately monitored and followed up often experience relapses and severe complications, which can result in death.

Is your dog showing signs of Cushing's disease? Contact our internal medicine veterinarian inLos Angeles if you have any questions about how to prepare your dog for the procedure!

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