What is cushing's disease in dogs?

HotbotBy HotBotUpdated: July 3, 2024

Cushing's disease, known scientifically as hyperadrenocorticism, is a condition that results from the overproduction of cortisol by the adrenal glands. This hormonal imbalance can have far-reaching effects on a dog's body, impacting various systems and functions. Below, we delve into the intricacies of Cushing's disease, covering everything from its causes and symptoms to diagnosis and treatment options.

Causes of Cushing's Disease in Dogs

Cushing's disease in dogs can be classified into three primary types based on its causes:

Pituitary-Dependent Cushing's Disease (PDH)

Pituitary-dependent Cushing's disease is the most common form, accounting for approximately 80-90% of cases. It occurs when a benign tumor on the pituitary gland in the brain secretes excessive amounts of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol relentlessly.

Adrenal-Dependent Cushing's Disease (ADH)

Adrenal-dependent Cushing's disease is less common, making up about 15-20% of cases. This form results from a tumor on one or both adrenal glands, causing them to produce excessive cortisol directly. These tumors can be benign or malignant.

Iatrogenic Cushing's Disease

Iatrogenic Cushing's disease is induced by prolonged use of corticosteroid medications. These drugs, often prescribed for conditions like allergies or autoimmune diseases, can mimic the effects of naturally occurring cortisol, leading to similar symptoms.

Symptoms of Cushing's Disease

Cushing's disease manifests through a variety of symptoms, many of which can be mistaken for normal aging. Key signs to watch for include:

Increased Thirst and Urination

One of the most noticeable symptoms is an increase in water consumption and urination frequency. This occurs because excessive cortisol affects the kidneys' ability to concentrate urine.

Increased Appetite

Dogs with Cushing's disease often exhibit an insatiable appetite. This is due to cortisol's role in metabolism and its effect on hunger signals.

Weight Gain and Abdominal Enlargement

Cushing's disease can lead to weight gain, especially around the abdomen, creating a pot-bellied appearance. This is due to fat redistribution and muscle wasting.

Hair and Skin Changes

Hair loss, thinning fur, and skin infections are common in affected dogs. The skin may also appear thin and fragile.

Muscle Weakness and Lethargy

Excess cortisol can cause muscle atrophy, leading to weakness and a lack of energy.

Diagnosis of Cushing's Disease

Diagnosing Cushing's disease involves a combination of clinical signs, blood tests, and imaging. Here are the primary diagnostic methods:

Blood Tests

- Complete Blood Count (CBC) and Biochemistry Panel: These tests can reveal abnormalities such as elevated liver enzymes and cholesterol levels.

- Urine Cortisol:Creatinine Ratio (UCCR): This test measures cortisol levels in the urine. High levels suggest Cushing's but are not definitive.

- ACTH Stimulation Test: This involves measuring cortisol levels before and after injecting synthetic ACTH. An exaggerated response indicates Cushing's.

Low-Dose Dexamethasone Suppression Test (LDDS)

This test involves administering dexamethasone, a corticosteroid, and measuring cortisol levels at intervals. In dogs with Cushing's, cortisol levels do not suppress as expected.


- Ultrasound: An ultrasound of the abdomen can help identify adrenal gland tumors or enlargement.

- MRI or CT Scan: These imaging techniques are used to visualize the pituitary gland in cases of suspected pituitary-dependent Cushing's.

Treatment Options for Cushing's Disease

The treatment approach for Cushing's disease depends on the underlying cause and the dog's overall health. Here are the main treatment options:


- Trilostane: Commonly prescribed, Trilostane inhibits cortisol production by blocking an enzyme in the adrenal glands. It requires regular monitoring and dosage adjustments.

- Mitotane: This drug selectively destroys part of the adrenal cortex, reducing cortisol production. It can be effective but carries a higher risk of side effects.


- Adrenalectomy: Surgical removal of the affected adrenal gland(s) is an option for adrenal-dependent Cushing's disease. It can be curative but carries surgical risks.

- Hypophysectomy: In rare cases, surgical removal of the pituitary tumor may be considered.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is sometimes used for dogs with pituitary-dependent Cushing's disease, especially if surgery is not an option. It can help shrink the tumor and reduce hormone production.

Management and Prognosis

Managing Cushing's disease requires ongoing care and monitoring. Regular veterinary visits, blood tests, and adjustments to medication are essential. The prognosis varies depending on the cause and the dog's response to treatment. With appropriate management, many dogs can lead comfortable lives.

Prevention and Early Detection

While it is not always possible to prevent Cushing's disease, early detection can significantly improve outcomes. Regular veterinary check-ups and paying attention to changes in your dog's behavior and health can help catch the disease in its early stages.

Living with a Dog with Cushing's Disease

Living with a dog diagnosed with Cushing's disease can be challenging but rewarding. Providing a stable environment, adhering to treatment plans, and maintaining open communication with your veterinarian are crucial steps in ensuring your pet's well-being.

In the world of veterinary medicine, Cushing's disease stands as a testament to the complexities of hormonal balance within the body. As we deepen our understanding and develop more advanced treatments, the lives of affected dogs can be enriched and extended, offering them a chance to thrive despite the challenges they face.

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