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canine health problems
Dachshund at risk of Cushing's disease

The essentials 

  • Cushing’s disease in dogs is also called hyperadrenocorticism It results from an overproduction of the hormone cortisol in the adrenal glands.
  • Two of the most common signs are uncontrollable thirst and frequent urination Other symptoms include panting, thinning of fur on the rump and tail, and a pot-bellied appearance.
  • Treatment of Cushing’s disease differs Depending on whether the condition is adrenal- or pituitary-dependent, your dog’s treatment may vary.
  • Dogs with Cushing’s disease can develop mobility issues — Due to muscle weakness and joint laxity, dogs may have some issues getting around. Pet parents who notice this issue in their dogs may want to invest in floor runners and ramps.

What are common causes of Cushing’s disease? 

The adrenals are a pair of pea-sized glands located near the kidneys. Despite their size, they secrete some of the most potent hormones in the body, including epinephrine, testosterone, estrogen, and cortisol. An over or underproduction of these hormones causes almost all adrenal diseases found in dogs.

Cushing’s disease, or hyperadrenocorticism, occurs when the adrenal glands produce excess cortisol. As a result, dogs often experience panting, excessive appetite, increased thirst (polyuria), and frequent urination (polydipsia).

About 85-90% of Cushing’s syndrome in dogs is pituitary-dependent. According to The VIN Dermatology Consultants, there are three main types of Cushing’s disease:

  • Pituitary-dependent Cushing’s disease. Occurs when the adrenal glands overproduce cortisol, often because of a benign tumor on the pituitary, a small gland at the base of the brain.
  • Adrenal-dependent Cushing’s disease. Occurs when the adrenal glands overproduce cortisol, often because of either a benign or cancerous adrenal tumor.
  • Latrogenic Cushing’s. If a dog takes a high dose of steroid medication for a long time, it can lead to this type of Cushing’s.

There’s no way to prevent Cushing’s disease. The best way to help your dog is to know the signs and become familiar with the breeds most likely to develop the condition. Fortunately, many of the common signs of Cushing’s disease are quite obvious.

Breeds and ages

If your dog is a miniature poodle, dachshund, boxer, Boston terrier, or beagle, they may have a higher risk of developing the condition. This condition typically affects middle-aged and older.

Common signs

The most common symptoms of Cushing’s disease are increased thirst and urination. In addition, you may want to look out for:

  • Increased appetite
  • Weakness and lethargy
  • Panting and restlessness
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Heat intolerance
  • An enlarged and sagging belly that gives your dog a pot-bellied appearance
Dachshund with Cushing's disease

Dachshund with pot-belly 📷 by Wikimedia Commons

Hair loss and skin issues

Hair loss or alopecia is another sign of an endocrine disease like Cushing’s. According to “Solutions for dogs with Cushing’s disease,” other skin-related signs of endocrine disease in your dog may include:

  • Thinning of the skin
  • A skin infection like dandruff or hot spots
  • Blackheads or canine acne
  • Hyperpigmentation
  • Calcinosis cutis (calcium deposits in the skin)
  • Thinning of the fur on the rump and tail

Diagnosis may be difficult

Early cases of Cushing’s disease can be difficult to diagnose. Your dog’s veterinarian will likely perform blood work or a urine culture. In addition to Cushing’s disease, other conditions that may cause similar symptoms include kidney disease, diabetes, and urinary tract infections.

Dogs with Cushing’s disease will often have elevated cholesterol and alkaline phosphatase (ALP) levels. Even with these numbers, though, your dog’s vet still won’t be able to make a definitive diagnosis. Enlarged adrenal glands or an adrenal tumor also suggest that Cushing’s disease is a possibility.

Diagnostic tools

The following two different tests can help your vet diagnose your dog with Cushing’s disease:

  • Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) stimulation test. This differentiation test involves a blood sample, an injection of the hormone ACTH, an hour of waiting, and then another blood sample. While this test is short to perform, it can’t determine which type of Cushing’s disease your dog has.
  • Low-dose dexamethasone suppression test. This test takes 8 hours to perform. It involves a series of small blood draws, in between which your dog’s vet will inject your pup with a low-dose steroid. This test can distinguish between the different types of Cushing’s disease 50% of the time.

An abdominal ultrasound is a screening test performed to identify an adrenal tumor or enlargement. Enlarged adrenal glands can suggest possible pituitary-dependent Cushing’s disease, while adrenal tumors help support a diagnosis of adrenal-dependent Cushing’s disease.

Life-expectancy for Cushing's disease in dogs

According to The Merck Vet Manual,  “The outlook for dogs with pituitary-dependent Cushing disease is survival for about 2 years, with or without medications. Dogs that undergo surgery for a tumor on one of the adrenal glands may survive about 18 months.” Life expectancy also depends if the adrenal tumor is benign or cancerous, and whether or not it can be surgically removed.

Treatment differs based on the condition 

Many dogs respond well to treatment for Cushing’s. Your vet’s goal with treatment is to decrease the amount of cortisol in your dog’s system.

  • Adrenal-dependent Cushing’s. Treatment for this type of Cushing’s disease involves tumor removal, which may cure the dog. If the tumor is small and doesn’t impact other areas of your dog’s body, then your pet’s vet might recommend surgery.
  • Pituitary-dependent Cushing’s. The goal of this type of treatment is to suppress the overproduction of cortisol. To do this, your vet may give your dog the drug Vetoryl (Trilostane). If so, your pup will need to be monitored closely, as this medication can elevate their liver enzymes and cause issues like vomiting and diarrhea. After starting this treatment, symptoms like hair loss should improve.

Tips on how to manage and care for your dog 

Cushing’s disease can impact your dog’s quality of life. Pet owners must be vigilant to ensure their canine buddy is comfortable and doesn’t suffer. Since dogs with Cushing’s disease experience uncontrollable thirst, increased hunger, frequent urination, and panting, the following tips might be useful to pet owners:

Always have fresh water available — And try a water fountain to encourage hydration.

Make sure your pup has access to the outdoors — For issues like frequent urination, you might want to explore doggy doors.

Keep an eye on your dog’s skin — Dandruff is a common side effect of Cushing’s disease and may be an issue with your pup.

Add runners and avoid slick floors — Your dog may experience mobility issues, so keeping them off slick wooden floors or laminate is a good idea.

Make sure your pup has a soft bed — You may also want to avoid stairs and teach your dog to use ramps.

The benefits of fish oil for dull, inflamed skin

Fish oil can help improve inflamed skin and dandruff, both of which Cushing’s disease can cause. Pet owners might want to talk to their vet about adding an over-the-counter fish oil supplement to their dog’s diet. Ask your vet about the salmon oil supplements they recommend.

Fave products to support your doggie’s skin and coat 

Adding a fatty acid supplement to your dog’s diet, such as Nordic Naturals Omega-3 Pet or Natural Dog Company’s Salmon Oil, can help improve skin issues like dandruff and irritation.

Pet owners should be patient. After starting an omega-three fatty acid supplement (a.k.a. fish oil), skin infections like dandruff can take 4-8 weeks to resolve.

Our favorite fatty acid supplement

Natural Dog Company’s Salmon Oil is as natural as it gets. Made with 100% pure salmon oil, we love that it doesn’t contain any fillers, additives, or preservatives. Instead, it’s full of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to reduce inflammation and restore your pup’s skin health.

Ingredients: Wild Alaskan salmon oil.

👉 Usually these products are made from natural products and are safe for your dog to consume. That being said, keep in mind that dogs can be allergic to anything that goes inside their bodies. 

Frequently asked questions

What are the symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome?

The symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome include increased appetite, polydipsia, polyuria, and the appearance of a pot belly. Most dogs present with obvious Cushing’s symptoms.

How is Cushing’s disease diagnosed?

A high level of alkaline phosphatase (ALP) is an indicator that your dog may have this adrenal disease. Your veterinarian will rule out other endocrine diseases when you schedule an appointment.

What causes Cushing’s syndrome?

Cushing’s disease is caused by an overproduction of the hormone cortisol. The symptoms your dog presents are a result of excess cortisol.

Which dog breeds are most at risk?

Some breeds are at higher risk of developing Cushing’s. These breeds include a boxer and beagle. If you live with a breed on the shortlist, it’s important to become familiar with the symptoms.