What You Need to Know About Cushing’s Disease in Dogs

older yellow lab at the vet

It’s important to keep an eye on your dog’s health and go to the vet for regular checkups. Just as humans can sometimes get sick or develop diseases, so can your dog. Regular health checkups at the vet can help and so can the knowledge about what to look for. Here’s what you need to know about Cushing’s Disease in dogs:

What is Cushing’s Disease in Dogs?

Cushing’s Disease in dogs is also referred to as Cushing’s Syndrome, hypercortisolism, and hyperadrenocorticism. Cushing’s Disease is a hormone imbalance disorder where the body produces too much cortisol. It occurs in humans and can also occur in your dog.

Cortisol is the hormone most well-known for its role in the body’s response to stress. It also affects metabolism and the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels, which can affect the body’s ability to control weight and can lead to things like insulation resistance and diabetes. It can also cause the immune system to be suppressed and make it harder for your dog to fight off infections.

Causes of Cushing’s Disease in Dogs

Middle-aged and older dogs tend to be more prone to Cushing’s Disease than younger dogs. There are a few types of Cushing’s Disease. The symptoms are similar across all types and are caused by a cortisol hormone imbalance. However, the origin of the imbalance differs among the types. The two most common types are caused by tumors in specific areas and the other can be caused by extended steroid use.

3 Types of Cushing’s Syndrome

Pituitary Dependent and Adrenal Dependent are the two major types of Cushing’s Syndrome. Iatrogenic Cushing’s Syndrome is less common, but can occur.

Pituitary Dependent Cushing’s Syndrome

Pituitary Dependent Cushing’s Disease is the most common form. Of the animals that have Cushing’s Disease, 80-90% of them have this form of it. This form of Cushing’s Syndrome occurs when the cortisol imbalance originates from the pituitary gland in the brain. This pea-sized gland is located at the base of the brain. Pituitary Dependent Cushing’s Syndrome is caused by a tumor forming in this area.

Adrenal Dependent Cushing’s Syndrome

Adrenal Dependent Cushing’s Disease is less common than Pituitary Dependent, but more common than Iatrogenic. Of dogs diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease, about 15-20% will have this form of it. This form of Cushing’s Syndrome occurs when the cortisol imbalance originates from the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are one of the types of glands located on top of the kidneys. Adrenal Dependent Cushing’s Syndrome is caused by a tumor forming in this area.

Iatrogenic Cushing’s Syndrome

Iatrogenic Cushing’s Syndrome is far less common than either of the other two types. It can be a side effect of long-term steroid use. When dogs have to take steroids over an extended period, they can develop a cortisol imbalance. Iatrogenic Cushing’s Syndrome is a cortisol imbalance that originates from this long-term steroid use.

What are the Symptoms of Cushing’s Disease in Dogs?

Cushing’s Disease can be difficult for vets to diagnose because the common symptoms are similar to several other conditions. The vet will need to run a variety of tests to rule out other health conditions that may be the source of your dog’s symptoms before they can give a Cushing’s Disease diagnosis. Because there are similarities with other conditions, symptoms can be hard for a dog owner to spot in the beginning. These are some of the symptoms that could be Cushing’s Disease in dogs:

Changes in Appetite and Thirst

Cushing’s Disease may cause changes in a dog’s appetite and thirst levels. You may notice that your dog seems thirstier and hungrier than usual. Sometimes dogs will have an “off” day every now and then, but if increases in appetite and thirst persist, it may be time for a trip to the vet for a checkup.

An Increase in Accidents

You may also notice an increase in the number of accidents your dog has. As dogs get older, they may need to go out more often and may start to have accidents. An increase in thirst increases overall water intake and also increases how often your dog needs to pee.

Even if your dog is housebroken and rarely has an accident indoors, they may start to have accidents inside more often if they are experiencing symptoms of Cushing’s Disease. This type of incontinence can be due to old age or can be a symptom of various health conditions. Either way, you’ll want to make an appointment with your vet.

Lethargy and Weight Gain

Cushing’s Disease can also cause a marked increase in lethargy and a decrease in activity. Your dog may be inactive and appear like they are very tired. This often also results in weight gain and your dog may develop a pot belly.

Skin and Hair Issues

Skin and hair issues are common symptoms of Cushing’s Disease and many other health conditions. If your dog is showing signs of thinning skin or is getting skin infections, it could be a sign of Cushing’s Disease or another health issue. Additionally, your dog’s hair may be slow to grow or they may begin losing hair.

Treatments for Cushing’s Disease in Dogs

There are a few types of treatment for Cushing’s Disease. The one that is best will depend on the type of Cushing’s Disease, how invasive the tumor is, other health conditions, and more.

Surgery

Some dogs, depending on their specific case, can have surgery to cure the problem. If a dog has Adrenal Dependent Cushing’s Disease, the tumor may be able to be removed with surgery. If the tumor has spread or there are other health issues that might interfere, surgery may not be a viable option.

Medication

If surgery doesn’t make sense or the dog has Pituitary Dependent Cushing’s Disease, they can take medicine to help control and regulate their cortisol levels. They will need to take this medication for the rest of their life, get regular checkups, and get regular bloodwork for monitoring. However, dogs can usually live a normal, active, and happy life with medication to treat their condition.

Reducing or Stopping Steroids

If your dog has developed Iatrogenic Cushing’s Syndrome, your vet may be able to help manage it by reducing or gradually stopping the steroid use. However, stopping long-term steroid use that was used to treat a specific condition can cause that condition to return.

In this case, you and your vet will have to weigh the symptoms and risks of each condition to determine which is more dangerous for your dog. It may make sense to continue steroid use to treat the original condition while also attempting some sort of treatment for the Cushing’s Syndrome.

It’s scary when your dog isn’t feeling well. They can’t verbally explain to you what’s going on and not knowing how to help is stressful for you both. You should take your dog to the vet anytime they are showing odd behaviors or symptoms, but knowing what to look for can provide a little peace of mind.