Cushing's Disease in Dogs: Symptoms & Treatment

If your dog has just been diagnosed with Cushing's disease or your vet suspects they may be suffering from the condition, you'll likely have some questions. Our Lethbridge vets share symptoms of Cushing's disease in dogs, what to expect, potential treatment options and more.

What is Cushing's disease in dogs?

Dogs with Cushing's disease (hyperadrenocorticism) have adrenal glands that produce excess cortisol (cortisone) in the body. This surplus of cortisol can leave a dog at risk of many serious conditions and illnesses, from diabetes to kidney damage, and can become life-threatening. 

Commonly caused by a malignant or benign tumour in the pituitary gland (a pea-sized gland found at the base of a dog's brain), Cushing's disease can trigger numerous symptoms, such as hair loss, panting, lethargy and more. 

In some cases, a tumour may be located on the adrenal glands, which are just above the kidneys. 

Prolonged use of steroids can also lead to production of excessive cortisol and cause latrogenic Cushing's syndrome. 

What are signs of Cushing's disease in dogs?

The following symptoms may cause your vet to suspect Cushing's disease, if they appear in your dog:

  • Panting
  • Hair loss
  • Thinning of skin 
  • Lethargy
  • Excessive thirst or drinking
  • Muscle weakness
  • Enlarged abdomen (potbellied appearance)
  • Frequent urination

You'll see at least one of these symptoms if your dog has Cushing's disease. However, it's also not uncommon for all of these symptoms to be present. 

If you notice your dog exhibiting any of the symptoms listed above, it's critical to contact your vet immediately, since pooches with Cushing's disease will have an increased risk of blood clots, high blood pressure, diabetes and kidney damage. 

How is Cushing's disease diagnosed?

After your vet performs a physical exam, they'll run a few diagnostic tests to find out what might be causing your pet's symptoms. These tests will also help rule out other problems and may include, but are not limited to a complete blood panel, full chemistry panel, urine culture, and urinalysis. 

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) allows your vet to check your dog's adrenal glands and is the most effective diagnostic test for Cushing's disease. However, this test can be expensive. If your pet requires an MRI, you may be referred to a specialty pet hospital near Lethbridge. 

Your veterinarian may also run adrenal function tests, testing adrenal low dose and high dose dexamethasone suppression test. That said, if another disease with similar clinical signs is present, adrenal function tests can provide false positives.

We may be able to use an ultrasound to help rule out other conditions that may be causing your dog's symptoms. Other diseases that can cause similar symptoms in dogs include bladder stones, gastrointestinal disease, chronic inflammatory liver disease, gallbladder disease, and tumours in the liver or spleen. 

At Park Pet Hospital, our vets can diagnose many internal diseases and conditions. We also have access to diagnostic imaging tools and treatment methods to allow us to detect and manage these issues. 

What are treatments for Cushing's disease in dogs?

Usually, Cushing's disease in dogs is treated with medications that help reduce the amount of cortisone produced by the adrenal glands. Removing the tumour is the only way Cushing's disease can be cured. However, because of the risks and complexity of surgery, vets opt to prescribe medication to treat most cases. 

Depending on the type of Cushing's disease your dog has, treatments will vary. The different types of disease include:

Iatrogenic Cushing's disease - Steroids will be gradually discontinued, typically leading to a recurrence of the disease that the steroid was being used to treat. 

Pituitary tumour -  Pituitary dependent Cushing's disease is the most complicated type to treat. Two drugs, mitotane and trilostane are commonly used. 

Adrenal tumour - Usually, treating adrenal dependent Cushing's disease requires major abdominal surgery. If the entire tumour can be removed and is not malignant, there is a good chance your dog's normal health can be restored. 

Whichever medication treatment is prescribed, your vet will need to see your dog regularly to run ACTH stimulation tests, until the excessive production of cortisone is controlled. 

Over your pet's lifetime, adjustments to medications will need to be made and routine monitoring of blood tests done. 

Is Cushing's disease fatal in dogs?

Your pet's prognosis will be impacted by the cause of your dog's Cushing's disease and the related conditions your pooch develops. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential for limiting the disease's severity. 

By monitoring the disease closely and managing it diligently long-term, your vet may be able to minimize the symptoms of Cushing's disease. 

Most dogs can be treated successfully with few side effects due to medication. However, the incorrect dose can cause mild or severe side effects to develop. Therefore, continued monitoring and followup blood tests are critical. 

Dogs who do not receive adequate monitoring and followup often experience relapses and severe illness or death due to 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.

Is your dog showing signs of Cushing's disease? Contact our veterinary hospital right away to schedule an exam. Our vets can provide diagnosis and treatment for Lethbridge pets.

(403) 328-0028