Cushing’s Disease in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment


Overview: Cushing’s Disease In Dogs: Symptoms, Treatments, And Remedies

Overview | Symptoms | Stages | Testing | Treatments | Remedies | Other Conditions | Dog Breeds | Life Expectancy

Cushing's disease (also known as Cushing's syndrome) is a serious condition that predominantly affects middle-aged and senior dogs. This disease occurs when your dog's body produces excessive amounts of cortisol, a hormone responsible for several vital functions, such as managing stress, weight control, and fighting infections. If left untreated, this excessive cortisol production can lead to severe health complications for your furry friend.

In order to better understand this disease, it is essential to grasp the role of cortisol and the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, are responsible for producing and storing cortisol. In cases of Cushing's disease, these glands are overactive, leading to excessive cortisol production of this essential hormone. The overproduction can be the result of a natural occurrence, or it may be induced by prolonged administration of certain medications, such as prednisone or dexamethasone.

As a responsible pet owner, it is crucial for you to be aware of the symptoms and treatment options for Cushing's disease in dogs. Early diagnosis and timely intervention can significantly improve your dog's quality of life and prevent further complications. By educating yourself on this condition and its potential effects on your pet's well-being, you can be better prepared to support them through the challenges they may encounter.

What is Cushing's Disease in Dogs?

Cushing's disease in dogs, also known as hyperadrenocorticism, is a condition where your dog's adrenal glands overproduce certain hormones, particularly cortisol. The adrenal glands are small organs located near the kidneys, responsible for regulating your dog's body processes. The overproduction of cortisol can lead to various health issues in your dog, including a weakened immune system, increased thirst, and increased urination.

Types of Cushing’s Disease

There are primarily two common types of Cushing's disease that your dog may experience:

  1. Pituitary-dependent Cushing's disease: This is the most common form, affecting around 85% of dogs with Cushing's disease. It occurs when a non-cancerous tumor forms in the pituitary gland, located at the base of the brain. This tumor causes the pituitary gland to overproduce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), resulting in the adrenal glands producing excessive cortisol.

  2. Adrenal-dependent Cushing's disease: Accounting for approximately 15% of cases, this type happens when a tumor grows directly on one or both adrenal glands. The presence of the tumor causes the affected gland(s) to secrete an excessive amount of cortisol, leading to the symptoms associated with Cushing's disease.

In both cases, recognizing the signs of Cushing's disease early and consulting with your veterinarian can help manage the condition and improve your dog's quality of life. Keep an eye on your dog for any signs of increased thirst, increased urination, increased appetite, or hair loss. If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your veterinarian for further evaluation and possible testing for Cushing's disease.

What Causes Cushing's Disease in Dogs?

Cushing's Disease, also known as hyperadrenocorticism, occurs when your dog's body produces excessive amounts of cortisol, a hormone that helps to regulate stress, weight, and immune responses. This overproduction can be attributed to various factors. Here, we will explore two common causes: Adrenal Gland Tumor and Iatrogenic Cushing's Disease.

Adrenal Gland Tumor

Adrenal gland tumors are among the key factors responsible for causing Cushing's Disease in dogs. These tumors can either be benign adrenal tumors or malignant, leading to the overproduction of cortisol. Approximately 15% to 20% of Cushing's cases are attributed to malignant adrenal tumors.

If your dog is diagnosed with an adrenal gland tumor, it's important to consult your veterinarian for the appropriate treatment options. Your vet may recommend surgical removal of the tumor, depending on its type and size.

Iatrogenic Cushing's Disease

Iatrogenic Cushing's Disease in dogs is caused by the excessive or long-term use of steroids, which artifically elevate cortisol levels in the body. Steroids are commonly prescribed to treat inflammation and certain medical conditions.

To manage Iatrogenic Cushing's Disease, it is crucial to consult your veterinarian. They may recommend gradually reducing the dosage of your dog's steroid medication while monitoring its health. This can help your dog's adrenal glands to regain normal function and prevent further complications associated with elevated cortisol levels.

Symptoms of Cushing's Disease in Dogs

In dogs affected by Cushing's disease, they may exhibit a range of symptoms with varying degrees of severity. It's important to monitor your dog closely for any changes in their behavior or appearance.

One common symptom of Cushing's disease in dogs is increased panting. Your dog might pant excessively without any apparent reason, and this could be indicative of the hormonal imbalance caused by the condition.

Another symptom to watch for is an increased appetite. Due to elevated cortisol levels, your dog may seem constantly hungry and might consume food more rapidly or beg for food more frequently. Be cautious not to overfeed your dog, as excessive calories can lead to obesity and further health complications.

Hair loss is also a potential symptom you may notice in your dog, particularly on their torso. This hair loss may be accompanied by thinning of your dogs skin and recurrent or chronic skin infections leading to skin lesions among other things. These skin issues can be due to the immune system being suppressed by excessive cortisol in their body.

In addition to the above symptoms, Cushing's disease might cause increased urination and thirst in your dog. You may find that your dog is drinking more water and needs to go outside to urinate more frequently, including during the night. Be aware that increased urination and thirst could also be signs of other medical issues, so consult your veterinarian for a proper diagnosis.

Lethargy is another common symptom experienced by dogs with Cushing's disease. Your dog may appear drowsy or exhibit a lack of activity, which might seem out of character for their normal behavior.

It is essential to keep an eye on your dog for any signs of sudden blindness, as this can be an indicator of Cushing's disease. Also, watch for vomiting, as it can occur in some cases.

Lastly, a pot-belly appearance might develop in dogs affected by Cushing's disease. This symptom is caused by the redistribution of fat and muscle loss, and it may become more pronounced as the condition progresses.

In conclusion, while observing your dog for these symptoms can be helpful, it is always best to consult your veterinarian for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan for Cushing's disease.

Stages of Cushing's Disease: Early, Intermediate and Advanced (Final Stage)

Understanding the different stages of Cushing's disease can help you identify the symptoms and provide appropriate care for your furry friend.

Early Stage Cushing's Disease

In the early stages of Cushing's disease, the symptoms may be subtle and easily overlooked. Common early signs of Cushing's Syndrome in a dog include increased thirst and urination, increased appetite, and a pot-bellied appearance. Your dog may also experience hair loss, thinning skin, and recurrent skin infections. If you notice any of these symptoms, it's essential to consult your veterinarian for a proper diagnosis.

Intermediate Stage

As the disease progresses to the intermediate stage, the symptoms become more pronounced. Your dog may exhibit lethargy, muscle weakness, and panting even without physical exertion. You may also notice darkening of the skin, and your dog may become more susceptible to infections due to a weakened immune system. At this stage, it's crucial to seek medical intervention to manage the symptoms and prevent further complications.

Advanced: The Final Stages of Cushing's Disease in Dogs

In the advanced stage of Cushing's disease, your dog may experience severe symptoms that significantly impact their quality of life. These can include severe muscle wasting, extreme lethargy, and difficulty walking. Additionally, your dog may develop other health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or kidney disease. Proper medical management is essential to alleviate the symptoms and improve your dog's overall well-being.


When your dog is suspected of having Cushing's Disease, the veterinarian will begin the diagnostic process by running several tests. The vet may order blood tests, including a complete blood count (CBC) and tests for adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) levels. These tests help determine if there is an overproduction of cortisol, which could indicate Cushing's Disease.

A commonly used diagnostic test for Cushing's Disease is the dexamethasone suppression test. This test involves administering dexamethasone, a synthetic steroid, to your dog and then measuring cortisol levels at specific intervals. If cortisol levels don't decrease as expected, it might indicate Cushing's Disease. 

The ACTH stimulation test is another valuable tool for diagnosing Cushing's Disease. This test involves injecting synthetic ACTH into your dog and then measuring cortisol levels before and after the injection. An abnormal response could suggest Cushing's Disease.

Urinalysis and urine culture could also be part of the diagnostic process to rule out other possible conditions. The vet might check the urine cortisol to creatinine ratio, which can provide helpful information regarding excessive cortisol production.

In some cases, your veterinarian may recommend an ultrasound to visualize the adrenal glands and detect potential tumors. This imaging technique can help differentiate between pituitary-dependent and adrenal-dependent Cushing's Disease.

Remember that diagnosing Cushing's Disease can be a complex process that requires a thorough evaluation of your dog's symptoms and multiple diagnostic tests. Make sure to consult with your veterinarian for a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment options.

Treatment Options

When it comes to treating Cushing's disease in dogs, there are several options available depending on the specific cause and severity of the condition. This section will outline the various treatments and provide a basic understanding of each.


In some cases, especially if the disease is adrenal-dependent and the tumor hasn't spread, surgery may be an effective treatment method. Removing the adrenal tumor is the only way to "cure" Cushing's disease in this situation, as mentioned by the FDA. However, this procedure can be complex and not always suitable for every dog. Your veterinarian will assess if surgery is the best option for your pet.


If surgery is not an appropriate or viable option for your dog, medication can be used to control the excessive cortisol production. Two primary medications used in treating Cushing's disease are mitotane and trilostane while holistic options include Canine Adrenal Support by Prana Pets.

  • Mitotane: This medication works by selectively destroying the cortisol-producing cells in the adrenal glands, helping reduce the symptoms caused by excessive cortisol. Regular blood tests and monitoring are necessary while using mitotane.

  • Trilostane (Vetoryl): A more commonly used medication, trilostane blocks the production of cortisol. Unlike mitotane, trilostane requires more frequent dosing, but may have fewer side effects. Regular checkups and blood tests are also crucial when using this medication.

Regardless of the medication chosen, it's essential to closely follow your veterinarian's instructions, as the drugs' dosages may need adjustment over time.

Radiation Therapy

In some cases, your veterinarian may recommend radiation therapy, particularly if the Cushing's disease is caused by a pituitary tumor. This non-invasive treatment option targets the tumor with high-energy radiation beams, aiming to reduce its size and minimize the production of cortisol. While this is not a cure, radiation therapy can successfully manage the disease and improve your dog's quality of life.

Corticosteroid Medications

It's important to note that excessive use of corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone or dexamethasone, can cause Cushing's disease in dogs. If your dog has been prescribed these medications for another condition, be sure to discuss the risk with your veterinarian and monitor your pet closely for signs of Cushing's disease.

Natural Treatments and Remedies

While traditional treatments often involve medications such as trilostane or mitotane, there are natural treatments and supplements for Cushing's that some pet owners and holistic veterinarians consider. These include adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha and holy basil, which are believed to help balance cortisol levels.

Melatonin and Lignans for dogs have also been explored for their potential benefits in managing the disease. Additionally, a balanced diet for dog's with Cushing's with whole foods, low in processed ingredients, can support overall health and potentially help in managing the symptoms. It's crucial, however, for pet owners to consult with a veterinarian before starting any natural treatment to ensure it's safe and appropriate for their dog's specific condition.

By being informed about the various treatment options available and working closely with your veterinarian, you can help manage your dog's Cushing's disease and maintain their quality of life. It's crucial to monitor their progress, as the disease can be serious if left untreated.

Monitoring and Prognosis

Monitoring your dog's condition is crucial for successfully managing Cushing's Disease. It helps ensure optimal treatment results and can improve your pet's quality of life. Schedule regular follow-up appointments with your veterinarian, and pay close attention to any changes in your dog's behavior, appetite, and overall health. Keep in mind that effective monitoring involves both proper veterinary care and your vigilance as a pet owner.

Regarding the prognosis of Cushing's Disease in dogs, the survival time can vary. On average, a dog with this condition has a survival time of about two years, while only 10% of patients live beyond four years. However, it is essential to understand that each case is different, and various factors, such as the dog's age, overall health, and the effectiveness of the treatment, can impact the prognosis.

If left untreated, Cushing's Disease may have severe consequences for your dog, including an increased risk of infection, a higher likelihood of developing diabetes, and reduced life expectancy. Therefore, it is vital to start appropriate treatment as soon as possible and strictly adhere to your veterinarian's recommendations.

Some treatment options, like radiation therapy, may impact your dog's prognosis. Radiation can help shrink pituitary tumors and alleviate symptoms associated with the disease, but it may also have long-term effects on your dog's health. Before considering any treatment, it is crucial to discuss the benefits and risks with your veterinarian.

Caring for a dog affected by Cushing's Disease can be challenging, but dedicating time and effort to monitoring their condition and following prescribed treatment plans can improve their prognosis. It is essential to communicate with your veterinarian to ensure the best possible care for your dog throughout their battle with this disease.

Cushing's Disease and Other Conditions

Cushing's Disease, also known as hyperadrenocorticism, is a hormonal disorder that can have a significant impact on your dog's overall health. As your dog's body produces excessive amounts of cortisol, it can lead to a variety of other medical conditions and complications.

One of the most common side effects of Cushing's Disease is kidney problems. High blood pressure and protein loss through the urine can contribute to kidney disease. If left untreated, these issues can lead to kidney infections and bladder stones, which can further impair your dog's renal function.

The liver can also be affected by Cushing's Disease. Vacuolar hepatopathy is a condition in which abnormal holes develop in liver cells, potentially causing liver dysfunction. This can be a direct result of the hormonal imbalance.

Another common issue associated with Cushing's Disease is diabetes. The excessive cortisol can have an impact on your dog's ability to regulate blood sugar levels, increasing the risk of developing diabetes. Proper management of Cushing's Disease can help reduce the risk of this complication.

Chronic skin conditions are also a common symptom of Cushing's Disease. Thin or fragile skin, hair loss, and recurrent skin infections can all be signs of elevated cortisol levels in your dog's body. These can be both uncomfortable and potentially harmful to your pet if not addressed properly.

Cushing's Disease can also lead to other circulatory problems like high blood pressure or even blood clots. In some cases, pulmonary thromboembolisms—a life-threatening condition where blood clots block arteries in the lungs—can also occur.

In summary, Cushing's Disease can result in numerous complications affecting various organs and systems within your dog's body. It's important to be aware of the potential risks and work closely with a veterinarian to manage this disorder and protect your pet's long-term health.

Prevalence of Cushing's Disease in Dog Breeds

Cushing's Disease, also known as hypercortisolism, is more common in certain breeds of dogs. While it can affect any breed of dog, certain breeds are more predisposed to this condition. It generally occurs in middle-aged to older dogs, with senior dogs being more susceptible to developing the disease.

Some breeds that have been identified with a higher risk of developing Cushing's Disease include Bichon Frise, Border Terrier, Miniature Schnauzer, Lhasa Apso, Yorkshire Terrier, and Staffordshire Terrier. While these breeds are more commonly affected, it is essential to note that your dog's individual risk will also depend on factors such as age, sex, and overall health.

Poodles, including Miniature Poodles, are not specifically mentioned in the research as having a higher prevalence of Cushing's Disease. Still, it is crucial to be aware of any symptoms in your pet and consult with your veterinarian if you suspect any health issues.

Dachshunds, Boston Terriers, and Boxers do not appear to have a higher prevalence of Cushing's Disease compared to other breeds. However, it is essential to monitor your dog for any signs of the disease, regardless of their breed.

Yorkshire Terriers have been identified as one of the breeds with increased odds of developing Cushing's Disease, with an odds ratio of 1.82. As a Yorkshire Terrier owner, you should be extra vigilant about your dog's health as they reach middle age or older.

American Staffordshire Terriers are not explicitly mentioned in the study. However, since Staffordshire Terriers are identified as having a higher risk of Cushing's Disease, it would be prudent to monitor your American Staffordshire Terrier closely for any symptoms, especially as they become middle-aged or older dogs.

In conclusion, it's essential to be familiar with the risk factors and signs of Cushing's Disease in dogs, especially if you own one of the breeds more commonly affected. As a responsible pet owner, always consult your veterinarian if you suspect your dog may be showing symptoms of the disease, regardless of their breed. Regular check-ups and prevention measures can help ensure your dog's health and well-being.

How Long Do Dogs with Cushing's Disease Live?

Cushing's disease, also known as hyperadrenocorticism, affects middle-aged and older dogs, with the average age of dogs diagnosed with the disease being ten years. It's important to know that the life expectancy of a dog with Cushing's disease can vary significantly based on various factors such as the severity of the illness, the overall health of your dog, and the appropriate treatment plan.

When you receive a diagnosis for your dog, it is crucial to work closely with your veterinarian to develop a tailored treatment plan. With proper management, many dogs with Cushing's disease can live normal lives for several years.

Timely diagnosis and treatment are important factors in improving your dog's quality of life and potentially extending their life expectancy. The earlier the condition is identified and addressed, the better the chances of managing the symptoms and reducing the risk of complications.

Treatment options may include medication, surgery, or radiation therapy. Medication is the standard treatment for dogs with Cushing's disease, and many dogs with this form of the disease can live normal lives for many years, as long as they take their medication and stay under close medical supervision.

To help your dog live as comfortably as possible while managing their condition, it's essential to maintain regular check-ups with your veterinarian and follow their recommendations for diet, exercise, and any necessary adjustments to your dog's medication. By staying proactive and working with your vet, you can ensure your dog receives the best care possible while living with Cushing's disease.


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