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Everything you need to know about Cushing’s disease in dogs

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It is very important to know about Cushing’s disease in dogs. Learning about its symptoms and causes is essential to know the proper diagnose.

By Daniel Mar

Dogs don’t usually drink too much water. Therefore, if you think that your pet is drinking more water than usual, you should be worried. There are some diseases that cause this symptom. Diabetes is the most common one. However, as a pet parent, you need to also consider hyperadrenocorticism or Cushing’s disease in dogs.

What is Cushing’s disease in dogs?

The discoverer of Cushing’s disease was Harvey Cushing (hence the name). This neurosurgeon was the first to stumble with this endocrine disorder back in 1912. Cushing connected was the first to prove that Cushing’s disease in dogs is a problem of the canine adrenal glands. These are important because they make vital hormones that regulate numerous body functions.

With Cushing’s, dogs produce high levels of the hormone 'cortisol'. At normal levels, cortisol is essential to help the body deal with stress and modulate the immune system. But, when in high quantities, it can cause serious body malfunctions.

Causes of Cushing’s disease in dogs

Cushing’s is a result of one of three illnesses:

  1. Your dog might over-consume steroid medications which inevitably leads to iatrogenic Cushing’s syndrome in dogs.

  2. The presence of a tumour on the pituitary gland (base of the brain). “The master gland” controls the secretion of many hormones inside the body. When it is sick, it misleads the adrenal glands. This type of Cushing’s syndrome in dogs is called pituitary-dependent hyperadrenocorticism (PDH). It is the most common type in dogs. More than 90 per cent of dogs with Cushing’s disease have a benign pituitary gland tumour”, said Jeff Grognet, DVM.

  3. A tumour on the adrenal glands leads to adrenal-dependent hyperadrenocorticism.

Any of these three can affect your dog. That is why it is very important to know every symptom of Cushing’s in dogs.

Symptoms of Cushing’s disease in dogs

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According to Dr Grognet, “The most striking symptom in Cushing’s disease is excessive urination and concurrently drinking tremendous amounts of water. As the disease progresses, dogs lose muscle, become weak, the skin thins, and you see hair loss on the flanks, neck and perineum [the area around the genitals and rectum]”.

Nevertheless, keep in mind that Cushing’s can reveal itself differently in every dog. Therefore you need to pay a visit to your vet for a professional consult. Nevertheless, as a dog owner, you need to know about the symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome. Here you have a list of the most common signs:

  1. Increased thirst and urination

  2. More hunger

  3. Loss of hair or inability to grow hair

  4. More indoor accidents (loss of balance)

  5. Thinning of the skin

  6. Excess fatigue and inactivity

  7. Pot-bellied abdomen

  8. Muscle weakness

  9. Infertility

  10. Obesity

  11. More panting

  12. Skin infections

  13. White patches on the skin

These signs may be hard to spot in the beginning but the longer you take to detect Cushing’s, the worse for your dog's health.

Diagnosing Cushing’s in dogs

To diagnose your dog with Cushing’s, you need to go to the vet. He will carry out a full-body check. After the physical exam is done, further lab tests are mandatory.

Unfortunately, Cushing's disease in dogs can be hard to diagnose. However, with the aid of medical tests, it can be done. The first ones are blood and urine check-ups. If your veterinarian sees anything abnormal in these tests, more examination is needed. The following step is a special test called ACTH-stimulation test. It involves drawing blood to check for cortisol levels. Shortly afterwards, the vet will administer an injection of adrenocorticotrophic hormone. After some hours, he/she will test cortisol levels once again.

Vets usually do some other tests like an ultrasound of the belly or a low dose dexamethasone suppression (LDDS) test. The latter one is the final step as it sees how your dog’s body assimilates man-made cortisol.

Treatment for Cushing’s disease in dogs

If after the diagnosis, a pituitary gland tumour is a cause, it can be treated with medication. On rare occasions, surgery is advised since it is very difficult to operate at the base of the brain.

In the case of an adrenal tumour, your vet will take living samples to determine if it cancerous or not. Surgery to remove this type of a tumour is a widely-used option. But if a tumour is cancerous, treatment requires chemotherapy.

Lastly, if the cause of the disease is the overuse of steroid medication, simply keep it away from your dog. Once consumption stops, your dog will get better.

Fortunately, once the treatment has started, the symptoms of Cushing’s begin to disappear. Once you see that your dog no longer has too much thirst, it means treatment is working. Shortly afterwards, skin lesions will disappear, hair begins to grow and appetite is restored.

It is important to identify Cushing’s disease very early. The average survival time for a dog with Cushing’s is almost two years with no treatment. This doesn’t mean that Cushing’s syndrome in dogs is lethal. It can be cured once treatment is applied.