What pet parents need to know about Cushing’s disease in dogs

Cushing’s disease is a serious yet underdiagnosed health condition in dogs that occurs when the adrenal glands overproduce cortisol in your pet’s body. Excess cortisol can put a dog at risk of several serious conditions and illnesses, from kidney damage to diabetes, and can be life-threatening.

The symptoms of Cushing’s disease can be difficult to detect, so what should pet parents watch out for? What are your dog’s treatment options if they are diagnosed with Cushing’s disease?

What is Cushing’s disease?

Cushing’s disease, also referred to as hyperadrenocorticism, is an endocrine (hormonal) disorder that is most common in middle- to older-aged dogs. The condition causes a dog’s adrenal glands to overproduce the stress hormone cortisol. As cortisol helps the body perform a variety of essential functions, Cushing’s disease can be very harmful and even fatal in dogs.

Causes of Cushing’s disease

A naturally occurring syndrome, hyperadrenocorticism has three possible causes. Identifying the cause is important because each type of Cushing’s disease is treated differently, and each has a different prognosis. Causes of Cushing’s disease include:

  1. Pituitary gland tumor – The most common cause of Cushing’s disease (85% – 90% of all cases) is the development of a tumor on a dog’s pituitary gland, which is located at the base of the brain. The tumor may be either benign or malignant.
  1. Adrenal gland tumor – Less common than a pituitary gland tumor, a benign or malignant tumor on one of a dog’s two adrenal glands can also cause Cushing’s disease. Adrenal tumors are at higher risk of being cancerous, often making this form of Cushing’s disease more serious than other types.
  1. Prolonged steroid use – Cushing’s disease can also be caused by excessive administration of an oral or injectable steroid, such as Prednisone or Dexamethasone. Referred to as iatrogenic Cushing’s disease, overuse of steroids causes excessive cortisol production that can do more harm than good for your dog’s body.

Predisposed breeds

In dogs, certain breeds are at a higher risk of developing Cushing’s disease than others. Some of the breeds predisposed to hyperadrenocorticism include:

  • Dachshunds
  • Poodles (especially miniature poodles)
  • Cocker Spaniels
  • Beagles
  • Boston Terriers
  • Boxers

For unknown reasons, females of these breeds are at a particularly high risk of developing Cushing’s disease compared to their male counterparts. If you have one of these breeds at home, it is important to consult your veterinarian about monitoring for Cushing’s disease, especially as your dog ages.

Cushing’s disease symptoms

Unfortunately, many dogs have advanced cases of Cushing’s disease before their owner even recognizes any issues. Symptoms can take at least one year to develop and are often mistaken for common signs of aging, as almost all patients are older than eight years of age when Cushing’s disease develops.

The first clue that something may be wrong is a potty-trained dog wanting to go outside far more than usual, including at night, to urinate. In addition to excessive urination, other possible symptoms include:



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