Cushing's disease in dogs is an affliction that is slow to develop. It’s particularly common in dogs reaching old age, although it can spring up in dogs as young as two or three years old. It is usually caused a tiny and otherwise harmless tumor in the pituitary or adrenal glands. This leads to a hormonal imbalance, which affects the dog’s internal organ systems. The disease results from the dog’s brain producing too much glucocorticoid hormone, which is a form of steroid - not from the tumor itseld. Cushing’s disease is also known as hyperadrenocorticism. In some cases the disease is brought on by medication, and in this instance it’s quite easy to deal with.
There is some evidence to indicate that the disease is more common in females and also in spayed and neutered dogs, although there’s no real consensus on these points.
Symptoms of Cushing's Disease in Dogs
There are many possible symptoms of Cushing's disease in dogs. They tend to show up slowly over a long time period, up to a year or more. For this reason many dog owners don’t even realize their pet is sick until their pet has been living with the disease for months or years – the owner simply thinks the symptoms are a by-product of the dog getting older. It may appear that your dog is getting old before her time, when really she has life left in her and is suffering from this disease.
Canine Cushing’s disease can be fatal, although it usually takes a long time to reach this point. A bigger risk is that Cushing’s can make your dog more susceptible to other diseases, such as diabetes and various heart, liver and kidney problems. Your dog will suffer a lot of discomfort in the meantime if symptoms aren’t picked up on and addressed. The sooner it’s treated, the better your chance of lengthening and improving the time your dog has left with you.
The most common symptoms of Cushing's disease in dogs are excessive drinking and excessive urination. Other symptoms include:
shivering and shaking
swelling of the stomach
abnormally thin skin
lumps and sores on the skin (calcinosis cutis)
an increase in appetite
slow healing of scrapes and cuts
changes in behavior (aggression, guarding, etc.)
apparent changes in weight, either gains or losses, without a change in diet
Be aware, though, that many of these symptoms can also be an indication of a number of other canine health problems. If your dog is showing one or any combination of these symptoms you should make a trip to the vet for a professional diagnosis.
What You Can Do About It
Sometimes the only treatment for canine Cushing’s disease is surgery, but in most cases it can be dealt with effectively by medication. However, there are a few risks and side effects related to the common medications used to deal with this disease, so be prepared to play nurse for your dog for as long as it takes for her to recover. There are several possible treatments available for pituitary gland tumors that don’t involve surgery, so discuss with your vet what you think would be best for your dog and what the risks and side effects of each treatment are. The most common medication is Lysodren, the side effects of which need close monitoring.
If the disease is being caused by a medication used to treat another health condition, the solution is to stop giving the medication. The dog’s hormonal balance will automatically correct itself over time.
Surgery can be a effective treatment if the tumor causing the condition hasn’t spread. This is the approach normally used to treat the disease when it is caused by an adrenal tumor, rather than a tumor in the pituitary gland. There are risks involved in the surgery and a chance the dog may not make it through, so you will have to discuss with your vet the possible implications for your dog's quality of life if surgery isn't undertaken.