Hope To Never Spot Cushing's Disease Afflicting Your Dog

Cushing's disease is surprisingly common in dogs, affecting one to two pooches per every thousand out there. This condition is caused by a hormonal imbalance. More specifically, it is caused by the adrenal glands producing too much cortisol, namely a condition called "hyperadrenocorticism".

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If diagnosed promptly and treated properly, almost all dogs with Cushing's disease can go on to live a long, active life. However, the initial symptoms of early Cushing's disease can be vague and non-specific, and it is essential for pet owners to be aware of them so they can bring them to the attention of their veterinarian in a timely fashion. This article will highlight some common and basic information about Cushing’s disease so that you can hopefully help your dog more quickly should they encounter it. 

Causes of Cushing's Disease in Dogs

There are three types of Cushing's disease:

  • Pituitary gland tumor - The vast majority (around 90%) of Cushing's disease cases in dogs are caused by a tumor on the pituitary. The pituitary is a tiny but very important part of the brain. The pituitary tumor induces the pituitary to trigger the adrenal glands to produce excessive cortisol. Most (85%) of these pituitary tumors are benign, meaning they do not spread, invade, grow rapidly, or threaten the dog's life.
  • Adrenal gland tumor - The remainder of Cushing's disease cases from from a tumor that is attached to the adrenal gland. It triggers the adrenal to produce too much cortisol. If the tumor is benign (an adenoma) it can be surgically removed. If the tumor is malignant (a carcinoma) the dog's outcome may not be as good.
  • Iatrogenic - Some dogs who have been treated with high doses of medications for a prolonged period of time will develop symptoms of Cushing's disease.

Spotting the Symptoms in Your Dog

Unfortunately, the symptoms of Cushing's disease are rather vague and non-specific. They tend to come on gradually, which makes it difficult for pet owners to realize that something is not right. First, it is important to understand that practically all Cushing's disease cases develop in middle-aged dogs. Second, although dogs of any breed can develop Cushing's syndrome, some breeds or mixes of those breeds are more likely to develop it. They are: 

  • Labrador retriever
  • German shepherd
  • Poodle
  • Yorkshire terrier
  • Daschund
  • Boxer
  • Australian shepherd
  • Maltese
  • Cocker spaniel

The initial presenting symptoms of Cushing's syndrome are the trio of lethargy, drinking a lot of water, and acting ravenously hungry. If the disease is not promptly treated, the dog may manifest symptoms of a pot-bellied appearance and dry, scraggly fur. Advanced symptoms include panting a lot, skin infections, difficulty in healing minor wounds, and frequent bladder infections. Diagnosis of Cushing's disease requires a full veterinary examination and specialized tests.

Treating Cushing's Disease

Treatment of Cushing's disease depends entirely on its cause:

  • Pituitary gland tumor - These dogs are generally placed on medication. This medication does not affect the pituitary tumor; rather, it blocks the adrenal gland from producing too much cortisol. The medication is given with food and quickly takes effect. More than 85% of dogs treated with this medication go on to live a normal life. They do need regular tests to ensure that they are taking the correct dosage. Most dogs experience no side effects, but some dogs have minor gastrointestinal upset during the first few days of starting the medication.
  • Adrenal gland tumor - Adrenal gland tumors are treated with surgical removal. This is major abdominal surgery, but it completely cures the condition. If the tumor is benign, the dog will rapidly return to normal and live a long, healthy life.
  • Iatrogenic - Iatrogenic cases are quite easily treated by simply weaning the dog off the high dose of medications it is being given; if the dog requires corticosteroids to treat some other condition, usually simply reducing the dose will relieve the Cushing's symptoms.

In summary, pet owners need to be aware of and watchful for signs of Cushing's disease in their middle-aged dogs. If diagnosed promptly and treated, dogs with Cushing's disease can live a long, normal life.

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