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feline health problems
Senior cat

The essentials

  • It’s rare in cats — Cushing’s disease is far more common in dogs than it is in cats, but felines can still be affected.
  • It can produce dermatologic effects in cats — One of the most common symptoms is extremely fragile skin.
  • There are two causes — In both cases, Cushing’s disease is caused by a tumor. The tumor can either be near the pituitary gland or the adrenal cortex.

What is Cushing’s disease?

Cushing’s disease, also called hyperadrenocorticism, is a condition caused by having too much cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone found in all mammals that’s responsible for helping the body deal with stress, control blood pressure, and metabolize sugar. When a cat, dog, or human has Cushing’s disease, the excess cortisol in their body then causes the amount of glucose in their bloodstream to increase.

Overproduction of this hormone leads to several problems in cats, none of which go away without veterinary care.

The most common reason for these high cortisol levels is the presence of small tumors on the pituitary gland. Some cats may also develop Cushing’s disease because they have small tumors on their adrenal cortex, the gland that’s directly responsible for producing cortisol.

Which cats are most at risk?

Older cats are far more likely to get Cushing’s disease, and most cases first present when a cat is middle-aged or older. Additionally, Cushing’s is more common in female cats — 60% of cases occur in females.

There are no cat breeds that are more at risk of developing the condition than others. Cushing’s doesn’t have any genetic or hereditary aspects, which means that no cat is more at risk because of their ancestry. Furthermore, there aren’t many known risk factors for Cushing’s disease. It’s caused by small tumors, which are hard to predict and unrelated to other things (like obesity or genetics) that are common risk factors for other diseases.

Signs and symptoms of Cushing’s disease

If you’re concerned your cat might have Cushing’s or a related pituitary disorder, here are some clinical signs and symptoms to look out for:

  • Feline skin fragility syndrome. One of the most debilitating and recognizable symptoms of Cushing’s disease that cats can suffer from is extremely fragile and thin skin, which leads to painful wounds.
  • Patchy skin. If your cat suddenly develops patchy fur or skin, make an appointment with your vet. Cushing’s disease isn’t the only thing that causes this issue, so it’s important to get a proper diagnosis.
  • Uncontrollable appetite. An insatiable hunger is often a sign of a hormone imbalance like that caused by Cushing’s disease.
  • Pot-bellied appearance. Cushing’s disease causes weight gain, particularly around the stomach.
  • Enlarged liver. While an enlarged liver may not be easy to see on the outside, it’s a sure sign that something’s wrong. Your vet will be able to detect this in an X-ray.
  • Muscle atrophy. Cushing’s disease causes a reduction in muscle mass and vitality.
  • Hair loss. Hair loss in cats has many different causes, including alopecia, so it may not be a definitive sign of Cushing’s disease.
  • UTIs. Recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs) can also be common in cats with Cushing’s disease.
  • Weight loss. Hormone imbalances can cause cats to suddenly gain or lose weight.

A note on diabetes

80% of cats with hyperadrenocorticism also present with diabetes mellitus and insulin resistance. Diabetes, just like Cushing’s, is closely related to hormone imbalances and glucose in the bloodstream. Drugs to manage diabetes, as well as dietary changes, may be necessary.

How is Cushing’s disease diagnosed and treated in cats?

Diagnosis

Cushing’s disease is even more difficult to diagnose in cats than dogs. Diagnosis happens in two stages:

  • Stage one: urine analysis. Urine samples need to be taken over the course of three days, allowing a vet to track how a cat’s cortisol levels change over time.
  • Stage two: LDDST. Your vet will conduct an oral low-dose dexamethasone suppression test (LDDST) to try and detect Cushing’s disease. A positive result is a strong indication that your cat is affected.

Treatment

The treatment for hyperadrenocorticism seeks to stop the overproduction of cortisone and keep hormones at normal levels. Many cats need medication to control their adrenal glands’ overproduction of cortisol. Trilostane has proven effective in cats. Some vets may recommend surgery to remove the abnormal adrenal gland. Your vet will help you determine the best treatment for your pet based on the severity of their case.

Alongside treatment for Cushing’s disease may come additional treatments for its effects. Diabetes treatment, wound treatment, and more may be necessary to help your cat experience a full recovery. Additionally, the adrenal tumor that caused Cushing’s disease may need to be removed.

How to care for a cat with Cushing’s disease

You may be unable to cure your cat’s Cushing’s disease or relieve its side effects at home, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help. Here are our vet-approved recommendations for keeping your cat comfortable as they recover:

Always have fresh water available — Cats with Cushing’s disease need lots of water to process and pass excess cortisol. Always having fresh water nearby makes it easier for them to stay hydrated and manage their hormone levels.

Keep an eye on your cat’s skin — Changes in the skin are the No. 1 indicator of your cat’s condition. If they’re getting better, their skin health should improve; if not, it will get worse.

Make sure they have a soft bed — Fragile skin, open wounds, and patchy fur can make it really hard to feel comfortable. A soft bed can provide a safe refuge from the pain and discomfort your cat may experience on other surfaces.

Try a onesie or shirt to help protect their fragile skin — Fragile skin needs to be protected, and there’s no better way to do that than with a shirt or onesie made for your cat.

Keep up with regular vet visits — Regular vet visits will be required to get your cat the help they need to manage and treat their Cushing’s disease.

Frequently asked questions

Is Cushing’s disease in cats preventable?

No. The best way to help your cat is to know the signs of Cushing’s disease and get them help ASAP.

How long can a cat with Cushing’s disease live?

Cushing’s disease doesn’t seem to have an effect on a cat’s life expectancy, so long as it’s caught early and the cat responds well to treatment. A severe case of Cushing’s disease, which often appears alongside diabetes, may reduce a cat’s life expectancy.

What are the symptoms of Cushing’s disease in cats?

The most common symptoms of Cushing’s disease are fragile skin, weight gain, and patchy hair. If you notice any of these signs, you should make an appointment with your vet as soon as possible.

Can a cat recover from Cushing’s disease?

Yes. With proper treatment and care, the effects of Cushing’s disease can be significantly reduced. Because Cushing’s disease is caused by a hormone imbalance, bringing the hormones back into balance can fix it.

How is Cushing’s disease treated in cats?

The two most common treatments for Cushing’s disease are medication and surgery to remove the adrenal glands. Your vet will be able to determine the correct method of treatment for your cat.

Do cats with Cushing’s disease suffer?

Yes, cats with Cushing’s disease can suffer from side effects. Hair loss, fragile and bruised skin, muscular atrophy, lethargy, and more can all affect a cat’s quality of life. If you think your cat has this disease, get in touch with a veterinarian immediately.