Image of sick dog laying in dog bed

Key takeaway

Cushing’s disease is a medical condition that results in the overproduction of ACTH, which is a hormone that comes from the pituitary gland. This disease seems to be more common in certain breeds, and the warning signs include panting, heat intolerance, muscle weakness, and alopecia. Treatment for Cushing’s disease typically involves medication, although surgery may be an option in some cases.

Cushing’s disease in dogs is a medical condition that occurs as a result of an overproduction of ACTH1 in a dog’s body.2 Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is a hormone made by the pituitary gland that’s responsible for controlling the amount of cortisol that’s produced in the body. Cortisol is commonly known as the stress hormone, and overproduction of cortisol can lead to several medical complications in dogs.

Graphic with definition of Cushing’s disease

There are a lot of symptoms of Cushing’s disease in dogs that you may notice, ranging from bruising and heat intolerance to stomach bloating and frequent UTIs. If you notice your dog experiencing these symptoms, you should talk to a vet about Cushing’s disease in dogs. However, it’s also important to keep in mind that Cushing’s disease can be mistaken for other medical conditions.

Early diagnosis is a vital part of treating Cushing’s disease in dogs. This is why you should know what the signs and symptoms are as a pet parent. If you want to know more about Cushing’s disease in dogs, what the symptoms are, and how it’s treated, read on.

Graphic with symptoms of Cushing’s disease

Symptoms Of Cushing’s Disease In Dogs 

As a pet parent, understanding the symptoms of Cushing’s disease in dogs is essential. The sooner you take your dog to the vet and get them started on medication, the sooner they’ll get relief from Cushing’s disease. 

Here are some of symptoms of Cushing’s disease in dogs2:

  • Polydipsia
  • Polyuria
  • Polyphagia
  • Heat Intolerance
  • Lethargy
  • Abdominal Enlargement
  • Panting 
  • Muscle Weakness
  • Recurrent Urinary Tract Infections
  • Alopecia
  • Comedones
  • Bruising
  • Cutaneous Hyperpigmentation
  • Calcinosis Cutis
  • Pyoderma
  • Dermal Atrophy (Especially Around Scars)
  • Secondary Demodicosis
  • Seborrhea

Keep in mind that many of these symptoms may present with other medical conditions, so you can’t diagnose Cushing’s disease on your own. This is why it’s important to visit your vet if you notice something is wrong with your pet.

What Causes Cushing’s Disease In Dogs?

Understanding the causes of Cushing’s disease in dogs can help you prevent it. So, what causes Cushing’s disease in dogs? There are a few things that can increase a dog’s risk of developing Cushing’s disease, including their breed and the administration of steroids.

In many cases, Cushing’s disease in dogs is a naturally occurring medical condition. Cushing’s disease can be pituitary-dependent, adrenal-dependent, or iatrogenic. Pituitary-dependent hyperadrenocorticism occurs when an enlarged pituitary gland produces excess ACTH. Adrenal gland tumors can also produce excess ACTH. Iatrogenic Cushing’s disease is caused by steroids or other medications affecting the ACTH regulatory pathway. Over time, some dogs begin to produce more ACTH, which leads to increased cortisol levels and the medical problems that come with Cushing’s disease. In these cases, there’s not a whole lot you can do to prevent Cushing’s disease, so it’s important to focus on treatment and managing symptoms.

Sometimes, Cushing’s disease in dogs occurs as a result of the administration of steroids. Too much prednisone or dexamethasone can lead to an overproduction of ACTH, and that goes for ear drops that contain steroids as well. When it comes to administering medications or using steroid-containing products for dogs, it’s always best to talk to your vet before giving your dog anything.

Certain breeds are at a higher risk of developing Cushing’s disease. Poodles, dachshunds, Boston terriers, boxers, and beagles are some of the breeds you should keep an eye on when it comes to Cushing’s disease. Regular checkups can help you spot this medical condition early, so you can start treatment sooner.

List and images of dog breeds at high-risk for Cushing’s disease

Diagnosis

Diagnosing Cushing’s disease is an important first step, and your vet will make a diagnosis by recognizing the signs of Cushing’s disease and performing a series of tests.

  • Low-dose dexamethasone suppression (LDDS) tests involve the administration of low doses of dexamethasone and the testing of your dog’s urine over a period of a few days. Your vet will look at your dog’s cortisol levels to determine if there’s a problem.
  • Urine cortisol to creatinine ratio (UCCR) is a good test for ruling out Cushing’s disease. If your dog’s UCCR is low, there’s a very slim chance they have Cushing’s disease.
  • The ACTH stimulation test is used to measure the response of the adrenal glands to ACTH. This test involves a blood draw, the administration of ACTH, and then a second blood draw to compare cortisol levels in the two blood samples.

Treatment 

As far as treatment for Cushing’s disease in dogs goes, there are a couple of routes vets recommend. However, medication is the most common treatment option for Cushing’s disease.

Once your dog has been diagnosed, your vet may prescribe medications to help control symptoms and make it easier for your dog to live with Cushing’s disease. This is the most common treatment option and is typically combined with regular blood tests and physical exams.

In some cases, your vet may recommend surgery to remove an adrenal tumor that’s leading to Cushing’s disease. However, it’s important to consider the risks that come with surgery before opting for this treatment.

Radiation therapy can also be used to treat Cushing’s disease in dogs when it’s caused by a tumor. Keep in mind that radiation therapy is often combined with surgery or medication, so it may not be the only treatment your dog needs.

Dog at vet appointment

Canine Cushing’s Disease: Frequently Asked Questions

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

Cushing’s disease may come with several early warning signs, including increased thirst and urination, increased appetite and weight gain, and hair loss. Your job as a pet parent is to keep an eye on your dog to make sure they’re happy and healthy. If you notice serious changes in your dog’s behavior or new or worsening symptoms of a medical condition, you need to visit a vet as soon as possible. The earlier you diagnose Cushing’s disease, the sooner you can get your dog the treatment they need to live a happier life.

What does Cushing’s disease do to dogs?

On the surface, an increase in the production of ACTH and cortisol might not seem like a big problem, but Cushing’s disease eventually leads to serious medical complications in dogs. Kidney damage is one of the biggest problems facing dogs with Cushing’s disease, but your dog may also develop diabetes. Cushing’s disease can cause a compromised immune system that can even lead to very bad infections in dogs, which can be fatal. Treatment for Cushing’s disease in dogs is aimed at reducing symptoms and improving quality of life, which is why it’s so important to get your dog diagnosed early on.

Which dog breeds are at higher risk for Cushing’s disease?

In many cases, Cushing’s disease is a naturally occurring medical condition that some dogs develop over time. That being said, there are certain breeds that are at higher risk for Cushing’s disease. Some of these breeds include:

  • Poodles, especially miniature poodles
  • Dachshunds
  • Boxers
  • Boston terriers
  • Yorkshire terriers
  • Staffordshire terriers
  • Large-breed dogs that may be prone to adrenal tumors

If you have a dog whose breed may put them at higher risk for Cushing’s disease, it’s important to know the warning signs and call a vet if you think your dog has Cushing’s.

Owner cuddling Boston Terrier

Final Notes

Cushing’s disease in dogs can be a big problem for pet parents. While Cushing’s disease is most often the result of natural causes, it can also be caused by administering too much steroids. Early diagnosis is key, that way you can get your dog started on medication to reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.

If you think your dog has Cushing’s disease, you need to talk to a vet. At Dutch, we can connect you with veterinarians in your area who can help diagnose and treat Cushing’s disease. We can even work with pharmacies to deliver medication directly to your door. If you need a vet without all the hassle, try Dutch today.

References

  1. “Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH): Medlineplus Medical Test.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 9 Sept. 2021, https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/adrenocorticotropic-hormone-acth/#:~:text=ACTH%20is%20a%20hormone%20made,Respond%20to%20stress

  2. Greco, Deborah S. “Cushing Disease (Pituitary-Dependent Hyperadrenocorticism) in Animals - Endocrine System.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, 10 Feb. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/endocrine-system/the-pituitary-gland/cushing-disease-pituitary-dependent-hyperadrenocorticism-in-animals?query=cushing%27s

  3. Grognet, Dr. Jeff. “Cushing's Disease in Dogs.” American Kennel Club, American Kennel Club, 22 June 2021, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/cushings-disease-in-dogs/