Dr Hannah Godfrey BVetMed MRCVS.
If you’re a pet parent to a fur baby of the canine variety, you’ll want to do everything you can to keep them safe and healthy.
An important part of keeping your pooch as healthy as possible is spotting potential signs of illness early and seeking veterinary advice promptly. But sometimes symptoms can be subtle, and unless you know what you’re looking for, they’re easy to miss. So, let’s familiarise ourselves with Cushing’s disease and the signs your dog might show if they have it.
What is Cushing’s disease?
Cushing’s disease is also known as hyperadrenocorticism, and the symptoms are caused by too much cortisol, the stress hormone. So, how does your dog’s body end up with too much cortisol? Well, there are two ways. A dog with Cushing’s will either have a cluster of overactive cells within the part of their brain that signals the adrenal gland to release cortisol, or they’ll have a tumour on one of their adrenal glands.
What are the symptoms of Cushing’s disease in dogs?
If your dog has Cushing’s disease, they might show various symptoms. Firstly, dogs with Cushing’s disease are often very hungry and very thirsty, so you might notice your dog suddenly starts eating or drinking substantially more than they used to. They might also urinate more frequently because they are drinking so much, so you might find yourself cleaning up more accidents overnight. Cushing’s can also cause dogs to pant excessively and can make their shape seem more pot-bellied. You might also notice your dog’s fur starts to thin, and their skin looks almost see-through.
Which dogs can get Cushing’s disease?
Any adult dog of any gender, age, and breed can develop Cushing’s disease. However, it’s most common in dogs who are middle-aged or older. Certain breeds are more prone to developing Cushing’s Disease than others. Traditionally, these included Poodles, Dachshunds, Boxers, Boston Terriers, and Beagles. However, a recent study suggests that a few more breeds can be added to this list, including Border Terriers, Lhasa Apsos, Bichon Frises, Miniature Schnauzers Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Yorkshire Terriers, and Jack Russel Terriers.
How is Cushing’s disease diagnosed in dogs?
If your dog is showing some of the above symptoms and you think they might have Cushing’s disease, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian. If you’re able to measure their water intake over two or three 24=hour periods, this information will help your vet calculate whether their thirst is excessive for their body weight. It’s also a good idea to bring a fresh sample of your dog’s urine with you if you can.
Your veterinarian will thoroughly examine your dog, from their head to their toes to their tail. If they suspect Cushing’s disease is a possibility, they might recommend doing some tests. There are a few different ways to test for Cushing’s disease, and each has pros and cons. Your veterinarian will work with you to choose the most appropriate one.
Firstly, your veterinarian might recommend a screening blood test to look at your dog’s overall organ health, including their liver, kidneys, and pancreas. If their liver values are higher than they should be, this could signify Cushing’s. In this case, your veterinarian may choose to perform a dynamic blood test, where a blood sample is taken, an injection is given, and then another blood sample is taken after a period of time. There are a couple of different dynamic blood tests that can help diagnose Cushing’s; one is called an ACTH stimulation test, and the other is called a Low Dose Dexamethasone Suppression Test. Cushing’s can also sometimes be diagnosed using a urine sample.
How is Cushing’s disease treated?
Cushing’s is usually treated using a medication called Trilostane, which is available in a hard-capsule form. Trilostane works by attacking the cells of the adrenal gland, preventing them from producing too much cortisol hormone. However, because it acts by destroying tissue, dogs must be initially started on a small dose. After a few weeks, your veterinarian can re-examine your canine companion and perform a blood test, if needed, to check whether the dose needs to be increased. If your dog has Cushing’s, they will require medication for the rest of their life.
What happens if Cushing’s is left untreated?
Dogs who have Cushing’s often seem to be very happy during the early stages of the disease. Although they pant, drink, and pee more than usual, they have excellent appetites. However, over time the excess cortisol hormone in their body can cause an increase in blood pressure, heart disease, and insulin-resistant diabetes. Therefore, even though, in the short term, your dog may remain well, it’s a good idea to treat Cushing’s disease rather than waiting until it causes additional medical concerns.
It’s not nice to think that your furry family member might be unwell. Still, if their eating, drinking, or toileting habits change, it could indicate a problem. Therefore, it’s best not to ignore these signs and make a veterinary appointment as soon as you can. Cushing’s disease is just one condition that can affect appetite, thirst, and urination, among other things. When Cushing’s disease is diagnosed early, and treatment is started, it gives your dog the best chance of continuing to enjoy an excellent quality of life.