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Cushing's Disease in Dogs

Has your dog been extremely thirsty lately? There are many reasons a dog could have an increased interest in their water bowl and need to go to the bathroom. One of them is canine Cushing’s disease.   

Cushing’s disease may not be picked up on as part of a routine health & wellness exam. Many of the symptoms of this chronic condition can also be explained by other illnesses or environmental changes. But with following the signs and describing them to your veterinarian, they can pick up on the changes to help diagnose Cushing’s disease.  

What is Cushing’s disease in dogs? Read on to learn more about this illness, what symptoms look like and how to treat it.   

What is Cushing’s disease?  

The medical name of Cushing’s disease is hyperadrenocorticism, and this condition occurs when the body produces too much cortisol.   

Cortisol is a hormone often referred to as a stress hormone, and it plays a part in a dog’s fight or flight response. It’s normal for the canine body to produce some cortisol; however, when the body overproduces cortisol, your pet may experience a variety of harmful symptoms and need medical treatment.   

There are two types of Cushing’s disease. They are:  

  • Pituitary-related: Some cases of Cushing’s syndrome in dogs are related to the pituitary gland. This is the most common type of the disease, responsible for about 90% of all cases. The pituitary gland is located at the base of the brain. When your dog develops a tumor there, it can trigger the adrenal glands to make more cortisol and lead to Cushing’s disease. 

  • Adrenal-related: Your dog may also have a tumor on their adrenal gland. Even a benign tumor in this area can cause an increase in cortisol release. These glands are located just above the kidneys. While less common, adrenal tumors still account for a significant number of Cushing’s disease cases.   

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

It can be difficult to identify early symptoms of Cushing’s disease in dogs, and indicators often manifest as behavior changes with other causes. However, if you see a combination of these symptoms, you should consult your veterinarian:  

  • Increased thirst: If your pet is suddenly thirsty all the time, this could indicate an issue with the kidneys. Cushing’s disease could be one possible culprit.   

  • Increased urination: When dogs drink more water for any reason, they will naturally go to the bathroom more. However, increased urination is also linked to canine Cushing’s disease.   

  • Thinning skin: Pay attention to your pet’s skin & coat. If they are getting cut more easily or your vet notices thinning skin, it could be due to an increase in cortisol.   

  • Hair loss: A dog who unexpectedly starts to lose their coat may also be suffering from this disease. When their hair starts to grow back, it may do so slowly.   

  • Recurring infections: Because your dog’s skin and hair can thin out while suffering from Cushing’s disease, your pet may be susceptible to skin infections. The infections are likely to be persistent.   

  • Increased panting: Does your dog pant more than you’ve ever noticed before? Unless they just went for a run, this could be cause for concern.   

  • Enlarged abdomen: You might see that your dog suddenly has a bit of a distended belly if they have Cushing’s disease.   

  • Decreased activity: Cushing’s syndrome in dogs can also make your pup very tired. If your pet is suddenly disinterested in their favorite activities and only wants to sit around, it can be a good idea to get them checked out.   

When it comes to Cushing’s in dogs, symptoms should be considered in combination. That is, if your dog is a little tired, don’t panic—but do seek help if you see multiple symptoms from the list above occurring at the same time.   

Diagnosis of Cushing’s disease in dogs  

Unless your pet is suffering severely from multiple symptoms of Cushing’s disease in dogs, most vets won’t routinely test for the disease. You will need to request specific veterinary services and tests. Blood and urine will be tested to look for common signs of the disease, including diluted urine. For more conditions to ask about at your next vet visit, look at our guide to Basic Dog Health Care.  

Your veterinarian may also conduct an ACTH stimulation test. First, a baseline sample is taken, then your dog is injected with the ACTH, which is a hormone, to see how they react. If their cortisol starts at a normal level and goes up a little, it’s likely all is well. Cushing’s disease may be detected if your dog begins with elevated cortisol levels that skyrocket.   

Another common test for Cushing’s disease in dogs is the dexamethasone suppression test. This examines how your dog reacts to a manufactured steroid to determine if they have Cushing’s disease.  

What happens if Cushing’s is left untreated in dogs?  

If you don’t treat your dog’s Cushing’s disease, they are likely to become sick with related illnesses. For instance, your dog may have chronic urinary tract infections or develop skin infections—both of which can prove deadly if untreated.   

An untreated case of Cushing’s disease can also make your dog weak. Lethargy will increase, and your dog’s urinary tract may suffer.   

Treatment for Cushing’s disease in dogs  

Keeping an eye out for symptoms is one of the most important treatment steps. Once a diagnosis has been achieved, your veterinarian can make an action plan based on what is causing Cushing’s disease in your pet. For more conditions pet parents should be aware of, look at our guide to Recognizing Health Issues.  

If your dog has a tumor, your vet will assess whether or not it can be removed. If it can, surgery may be recommended. If your pet has a benign tumor that can be removed, that may resolve your dog’s condition. However, in many cases surgery may not be recommended based on sensitivity in the area around the pituitary gland.   

Many pups go on a medication regimen as a treatment for Cushing’s disease. Medications typically can’t cure the condition, but they can eliminate symptoms and help give your dog a better quality of life.   

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

The life expectancy for dogs with Cushing’s disease is typically reported as just two years—but the disorder is not a death sentence. Many dogs don’t get this illness until they are already near the end of their lives, explaining the short survival time. A younger dog diagnosed with the disease may survive for years with the right surgery or medication.   

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Reviewed by Dr. Whitney Miller, DVM, MBA, DACVPM

As Petco’s Chief Veterinarian, Dr. Miller is the lead veterinary subject matter expert, overseeing the company’s standards of excellence in animal care and welfare, growth in pet services and much more. Dr. Miller leads Petco’s medical team, supporting over 200 full-service hospitals and mobile vaccination clinics operating in over 1,000 Petco Pet Care Centers nationwide