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Cushing's Disease in Dogs: Common Symptoms and Treatment Options

Posted by Dr. Roth on September 12, 2022

What to do if
Lifestyle
dog resting on chair, exhausted due to cushing's disease

As dogs age, it's normal for their bodies to change. However, some changes may be signs that something is wrong. For instance, if a dog seems excessively thirsty and has stopped moving around like they used to, they may have developed a condition like Cushing's disease. This chronic illness can significantly reduce their quality of life, though some dogs are able to live without lethal health complications. 

However, with appropriate veterinary treatment, Cushing's disease in dogs can be managed effectively. Many dogs with Cushing's disease live long and happy lives when they receive the necessary care. Let’s take a few minutes to understand the causes of Cushing's disease in dogs, its symptoms, and how to treat it.

What Is Cushing's Disease in Dogs?

Cushing's Disease is the common name for hyperadrenocorticism. It's also known as hypercortisolism or Cushing's syndrome. In dogs, it's the result of their body producing too much of the hormone cortisol. This hormone is responsible for helping the body respond to stress, regulate weight, and keep skin and muscles in good condition. Cushing’s Disease is most common in older dogs

When there's too much cortisol in the body, it can cause problems. Cortisol is a natural steroid, and too much of it can cause issues like extreme thirst, hair loss, and lack of energy. These symptoms are often mistaken for signs of aging or other health problems, meaning Cushing's disease is under-diagnosed and often in more advanced stages when diagnosed.

What causes Cushing's disease in dogs? Most often, it's caused by a tumor. The adrenal glands produce cortisol after receiving a signal from the pituitary gland. If a tumor forms on these glands, the body may never receive the "off" signal and will keep producing cortisol until there's too much in the body.

The majority of cases of Cushing's disease are completely natural, and there's currently no known way to prevent these tumors from forming. There's no best practice guidance at this time to prevent Cushing's disease in dogs, rather it is recommended to ensure dogs have regular blood work completed at their annual or bi-annual veterinary exam. The best way to treat the condition once diagnosed is by removing the tumor or treating the symptoms to manage the severity of Cushing's disease in dogs.

Common Signs and Symptoms Associated With Cushing's Disease

For pet parents concerned about Cushing's disease in dogs and whether their pup may be showing possible signs, symptoms are the easiest way to discover if their pet is suffering or if they may be temporarily reacting to some other factor. It's easy to miss the wide range of symptoms of this disorder, so dog parents should pay close attention to their pet's behavior if they notice issues like:

Excessive Urination

Cortisol often causes extreme thirst, and dogs will have to urinate frequently. They may need to go outside often, even in the middle of the night, and may have accidents inside.

Frequent urination is not usually a sign of illness in puppies and young dogs. These dogs are typically more active and need more water, leading to more frequent urination. However, in older dogs with established habits, increased thirst and urination are good reasons to, at the very least, consult a vet.

Low Energy or Lack of Energy

One of the most common symptoms of Cushing's disease in dogs is reduced energy. Many people write off an older dog slowing down or sleeping a lot as a simple sign of aging. However, a middle-aged dog shouldn't be sleeping for hours a day. If dog parents notice their older dog suddenly sleeping or resting significantly more than their normal behavior, it may be worth discussing with a veterinarian so licensed pet health professionals can help them evaluate if other symptoms may be present.

Muscle Weakness and Pot Bellied Appearance

Weak muscles and a pot bellied appearance often signal advanced Cushing's disease. This occurs when cortisol has built up to the point that it's affecting the skin and muscle tissue in the dog's body. If a dog seems to put more effort into climbing stairs or getting up onto furniture, or if they seem to have gotten "fat" suddenly and for no reason, it's time to get veterinary advice, virtually or in-person.

How To Treat Cushing's Disease

Treating this health condition correctly is key to providing dogs with a better quality of life. There are several ways to treat the disease, including:

Receive an Accurate Diagnosis Via Blood Test

Before developing a treatment plan for a dog, it's essential to get an accurate diagnosis for informational purposes. A veterinarian will take a blood sample, then perform diagnostic testing to confirm that the dog has Cushing's disease and determine where the likely tumor may be. 

That information will help chart the best methods to treat the dog. In most cases, the best treatment may simply be adequate monitoring and medication. In this case, the vet will prescribe a medication like Trilostane to regulate or control the production of cortisol in the body. Trilostane prevents the adrenal glands from making cortisol by blocking the enzyme needed to make it. The amount of cortisol that's blocked depends on the dosage given. Dogs with Cushing’s Disease will also require regular follow-up appointments with a primary veterinarian to monitor how the drug works and whether the dosage may need to be adjusted. 

Remove Tumors Surgically

If a doctor determines that medication alone will not be enough to effectively treat the condition, they will likely recommend surgical removal of the entire tumor, the only way to cure Cushing's disease. However, this the location of the tumors that can cause Cushing's disease may mean that surgery carries greater risks to the pet’s health and safety than symptom management alone. Surgical removal is not very common and can be expensive, so it is only worth considering on the recommendation and following continued evaluation from primary and specialty veterinarians.

Any minor surgical error could cause severe side effects, potentially creating more problems than the surgery solves. If the tumor is on the pituitary gland, for example, it would require brain surgery to remove. This also means that surgery can be significantly more expensive than medication, so many vets recommend starting with a nonsurgical treatment plan first. Pet parents may want to consider pet insurance coverage to help with the ongoing costs of treatment.

Avoid Potential Issues With Routine Monitoring and Checkups

The sooner a dog is officially diagnosed with Cushing's disease, the sooner they can be treated. This keeps the dog's quality of life high and prevents many of the worst symptoms of the illness entirely. That's why it's so important to regularly monitor a dog's health and take them for regular checkups and blood work.

Pet parents can benefit from an online vet membership if they have concerns about their dog's health or behavior. Become a Fuzzy member to access around-the-clock live veterinary guidance, track pets’ routines and illness treatment, and worry less about treatment adherence for Cushing's disease in dogs. 

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