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Cushings Disease – What is it and how can you spot it in your dog?

Cushings disease, or Hyperadrenocoriticism is a disease caused by excess levels of blood cortisol. It is most common in middle aged to older dogs.

Cushings disease, or Hyperadrenocoriticism is a disease caused by excess levels of blood cortisol.  It is most common in middle aged to older dogs.  It is one of the most common endocrine diseases seen by vets and if left untreated can affect your dog’s vitality.  Most of the time it is easily treated.  This article will discuss exactly what Cushings disease is, how it arises in dogs, the symptoms, and what can be done about it.

What is Cushings Disease?

Cushings disease occurs when cortisol levels within the blood remain too high.  Cortisol is a natural stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which are two small organs situated just in front of the kidneys.  They are tasked with producing cortisol when the body needs it during periods of stress or illness, the levels of which are controlled by the pituitary gland in the brain. The pituitary gland will signal to the adrenal glands when cortisol production is needed, and when it is no longer needed then normal levels will return.  Cushings disease arises when this pathway is disrupted and cortisol levels stay too high in the dog. 

What causes Cushings Disease in dogs?

There are three causes of Cushings Disease in dogs.
  1. Tumours of the Pituitary gland – This occurs in about 85% of cases. The tumours are normally benign, and result in production of too much ACTH, the hormone which stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.  This will then result in too much cortisol being produced.  
  2. Tumours of the Adrenal Glands – 15% of cases are caused by a tumour of one, or rarely both adrenal glands.  This causes the gland to produce excessive amounts of cortisol.
  3. Administration of steroid medication for long periods of time will result in your dog showing signs of Cushings disease.  Steroids mimic the action of naturally produced cortisol.  This is why it is not good to keep animals on long term high dose steroid treatment.What are the symptoms of Cushings Disease in dogs?

Regardless of the cause, the symptoms of Cushings disease are the same.  They can be variable but one of the first things you might notice is a slowing down.  Other signs include:
  • Excess drinking  
  • Increased urination, sometimes with incontinence
  • Increased appetite 
  • Excessive panting
  • Pot belly
  • Patchy hair loss and recurrent skin infections
  • Muscle wastage
  • Lethargy

Dogs can respond differently to the disease so they will not always show all these symptoms.  If you suspect that your dog may have Cushings disease, then take them to the vet for a health check.

How is Cushings Disease in dogs diagnosed?

If your vet suspects Cushings Disease, then they will carry out a blood test to check cortisol levels.  Cortisol levels naturally vary throughout the day so your vet will give your dog an injection of a synthetic ACTH to stimulate the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.  An overproduction means that your dog does have Cushings Disease.  Some dogs with the disease will only have a marginal increase in cortisol.  If this occurs and the symptoms are suggestive then sometimes other tests are needed to reach a diagnosis.  

How is Cushings Disease in dogs treated?

Cushings disease cannot be cured but it can be treated.  If your dog is diagnosed with Cushings then they will be prescribed some tablets called Vetoryl. This is the only licenced drug to treat Cushings Disease, and it works by reducing the amount of cortisol produced by the adrenal glands.  Dogs should be monitored closely initially to ensure no side effects and for resolution of the disease.  Regular repeat ACTH tests will need to be performed.  You should see a reduction in your dog’s drinking and appetite within a few weeks, however other symptoms may take up to 6 months to improve.

If your dog shows any signs of vomiting, diarrhoea, lethargy or anorexia then the drug should be stopped and you should seek veterinary attention immediately.


What happens if I don’t treat my dog for Cushings?

Cushings disease, apart from causing the symptoms seen above, can also lead to the development of other diseases.  These could include:
  1. Diabetes
  2. Pancreatitis
  3. High Blood Pressure
  4. Recurrent infections of the skin, urinary tract and kidney 
  5. Blood clot formation in the lungs

It is therefore a good idea to implement treatment as soon as possible to try and prevent these more life threatening diseases from developing.

For more information please contact our expert vet.