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Cushing's Disease in Dogs

If left untreated, Cushing's disease can quickly become a life-threatening condition for your pup. In this blog post, our Nashua veterinary specialists share the causes of Cushing's disease in dogs, the symptoms and treatment options as well as what the life expectancy is.

What is Cushing's disease in dogs?

Cushing's disease (hyperadrenocorticism) is a serious health condition in which the adrenal glands overproduce cortisol (cortisone) in the body. Excess cortisol can put a dog at risk of several serious conditions and illnesses, from kidney damage to diabetes, and can be life-threatening.

This condition can be caused by a benign or malignant tumor in the pituitary gland, a pea-sized gland located at the base of the brain. In some cases, the tumor could be located on the adrenal glands, located just above the kidneys. Excessive cortisol can also result from the prolonged use of steroids, called iatrogenic Cushing's syndrome. 

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

Some of the symptoms that you may see if your dog has Cushing's disease are:

  • Increased appetite
  • Excessive thirst or drinking
  • Thinning of the skin 
  • Hair loss
  • Frequent urination 
  • Muscle weakness
  • Enlarged abdomen, potbellied appearance
  • Panting
  • Lethargy

Cushing's disease in dogs will usually be accompanied by at least one of these symptoms. It is essential to contact your vet immediately if your dog is displaying any of the symptoms above.

Dogs with Cushing’s disease have an increased risk of diabetes, kidney damage, blood clots, and high blood pressure.

How is Cushing’s disease diagnosed?

If Cushing's disease is suspected, your vet will perform a variety of diagnostic tests to confirm the diagnosis and rule out other health problems. The tests can include but are not limited to, urinalysis, urine culture, complete blood panel, and/or full chemistry panel.

Your vet may run adrenal function tests, testing adrenal low-dose and high-dose dexamethasone suppression tests. However, adrenal function tests can result in false positives when another disease with similar clinical signs is present.

An ultrasound may help to rule out other conditions that could be causing your dog’s symptoms. Other diseases that may cause similar symptoms include tumors in the spleen or liver, bladder stones, gallbladder disease, gastrointestinal disease, and chronic inflammatory liver disease.

The most effective diagnostic testing for Cushing’s disease is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which allows your vet to assess your dog’s adrenal glands. However, this testing method can be expensive. 

At Animal Medical Center of New England, our veterinary specialists are trained to diagnose and treat a wide range of internal diseases and conditions. Our emergency and specialty animal hospital is equipped with a wide variety of advanced tools and diagnostic technology to help us efficiently address and manage a range of veterinary issues.

What are the treatments for Cushing’s disease in dogs?

Cushing's disease in dogs is typically treated with medications that help decrease the amount of cortisone that the adrenal glands produce. The only way to cure Cushing's disease is to remove the tumor, however, because of the complexity and risks of surgery, most cases are treated with medication.

Treatments will vary depending on the type of Cushing’s disease your dog has. The different types are:

Pituitary tumor: Treatment of pituitary-dependent Cushing’s disease is the most complicated. Two drugs, trilostane and mitotane are commonly used. 

Adrenal Tumor: Treatment of an adrenal-dependent Cushing’s disease usually requires major abdominal surgery. If the entire tumor can be removed and the tumor is not malignant, there is a good chance that your dog will regain normal health. 

Iatrogenic Cushing’s Disease: Treatment requires gradual discontinuation of the steroid, usually resulting in a recurrence of the disease that was being treated by the steroid.  

After starting the medication treatments your dog will need to see the vet regularly for ACTH stimulation tests until the excessive production of cortisone is controlled.  

Your dog will need routine diagnostics throughout their life to monitor their condition, along with adjustments to their medications as needed. 

What is the life expectancy of a dog with Cushing's disease?

When a pet parent is presented with a diagnosis of Cushing's disease for their furry friend it can lead to one of the most commonly asked questions, 'Is Cushing's disease fatal in dogs?'

The cause of your dog's Cushing's disease as well as the conditions your pup develops that are linked to the disease are going to impact your pet's prognosis.

Early diagnosis and treatment are essential for limiting the severity of the disease. To help prevent suffering, the symptoms of Cushing’s disease should continue to be monitored and managed.

Most dogs can be successfully treated with few medication side effects. However, the wrong dose can cause mild or severe side effects. Therefore, your pet must be carefully monitored and follow-up blood tests are essential.

Dogs who do not receive adequate monitoring and follow-up often experience relapses and severe illness or death, as a result of complications.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet. 

If your primary care vet suspects that your dog has Cushing's disease, please ask them about a referral to our Nashua specialty veterinary hospital for advanced diagnostics and care.

Welcoming Referrals and Emergency Walk-Ins

Animal Medical Center of New England welcomes emergency walk-ins and appointments when your pet needs us most. Our team of specialists is also accepting referrals from primary care veterinarians - fill out a referral form to get started.


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