Canine Cushings Disease

Cushing's disease (also known as hyperadrenocorticism) is a condition in which there is excessive hormonal production in the adrenal glands. This condition usually affects older dogs. This page looks at the causes, symptoms and treatment including natural remedies for Cushing's disease in dogs.

The adrenal glands are two rather small glands located next to each kidney. The adrenal glands produce cortisol, a very important hormone that helps to regulate the body's metabolism, including, among others, the metabolism of protein, carbohydrate and fat; regulation of body weight; mineral balance; and skin health.

Adrenal glands are stimulated to produce cortisol by a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which itself is produced by the pituitary gland - a small, pea-sized gland located at the base of the brain.

Cortisol is released into the bloodstream at times of stress to prepare the body for a "flight or fight" response. The amount of cortisol produced varies depending on the situation. When a dog is under stress, for instance, the production of cortisol will be increased. Once this period of stress is over, the cortisol concentration will be back to normal.

Why is cortisol released at times of stress? It is because cortisol in the bloodstream triggers the release of glucose in the liver. Glucose provides energy for muscles in stressful situations in case the body has to either fight against an invader or escape from it.

Dogs with canine Cushings disease have an abnormally high concentration of cortisol in the blood for an extended period of time (over weeks and months). The excessive amount of cortisol in the blood has an adverse effect on the dog's metabolism as well as on the function of many system organs.

Cushing's disease usually occurs in older dogs. Small breed dogs (e.g. terriers) are more likely to develop the disease.

Information on Canine Cushings Disease

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Symptoms of Canine Cushings Disease

Common symptoms are as follows:

  • Increased drinking and urination
  • Appetite gain
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Hair loss
  • Skin lumps and discoloring
  • Weak muscle tone
  • Lethargy
  • Listlessness
  • Excessive panting
  • A sagging pot belly

As you can see, some of the symptoms above are very similar to those associated with the normal aging process. Weak muscles, lethargy and incontinence can easily be attributed to "aging". As a result, it is difficult to have an early diagnosis of Cushings disease in dogs. Therefore, it is advisable to carefully monitor the changes in appearance and behavior of your dog, especially if you have an older dog.

In addition, many dogs with Cushing's disease are mis-diagnosed as having liver problems because they tend to have elevated liver enzymes (ALT and ALP). The reason is that the liver is working hard to process the excess cortisol in the body. If a blood test reveals high ALT and ALP levels, but your dog exhibits some of the above symptoms, it is possible that he is actually suffering from Cushing's disease.

If Cushings disease is not treated in a timely manner, it will cause other serious diseases to develop, such as:

Causes of Cushing's Disease in Dogs

Boxer Dog Canine Cushing's disease can be either one of the following:

  • Pituitary Dependent - Pituitary dependent cushings is caused by a tumor (benign - not cancerous) in the pituitary gland. The tumor causes the pituitary gland to produce too much ACTH (the hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol). Too much ACTH means too much stimulation to the adrenal glands. The result? Excessive production of corticol.
  • Adrenal Dependent - Adrenal dependent cushings is caused by a tumor in an adrenal gland. The tumor causes the glands to produce excessive cortisol.

A majority of the cases of canine Cushing's disease (about 85%) are pituitary dependent.

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Treatment for Canine Cushing's Disease

Adrenal tumor-induced Cushings disease can be treated by surgically removing the tumor.

Drug therapies are available for Cushings disease caused by pituitary tumors. However, it cannot be cured since surgically removing pituitary tumors is simply too risky in view of the close proximity of the pituitary to the brain.

Drugs that are commonly used to manage Cushings disease in dogs include Lysodren (Mitotane) or Ketaconazole (Nizoral).

Lysodren kills the outer layer (cortex) of the adrenal gland. Careful monitoring is necessary to determine how much of the cortex is killed so that a healthy amount of cortisol can still be produced. Lysodren is toxic and requires careful handling - wash your hands thoroughly after giving this drug to your dog.

Ketoconazole suppresses cortisol secretion in the adrenal glands. It requires daily dosing (at the beginning stage of the treatment), monitoring, and of course careful observation by the pet owner. This drug is less toxic than Lysodren.

These drugs can also cause side-effects, such as:

  • Lethargy
  • Appetite loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

A new drug called Anipryl was approved for use in treating canine Cushing's disease about 10 years ago. Although results of treatment are encouraging, it is still a relatively new drug, and will still need to prove the test of time. There are also possible side-effects, which include (but aren't limited to): vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, anorexia, seizure, and lethargy.

Here is a video that gives an overview of canine Cushing's disease:

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Natural Remedies for Cushing's Disease

  • Herbs and Supplements

    Herbs cannot cure canine Cushings disease, but they can still be used to support the organs and systems that are put under extra stress due to the disease. For example, dandelion, burdock, and nettle are effective in strengthening an overtaxed liver, kidneys, and digestive system. The rich vitamins and minerals (especially potassium and magnesium) in these herbs can also replace those that are lost as a result of increased urination. Immune-boosting tonic herbs such as astragalus or Siberian ginseng are also beneficial to strengthen the immune system.

    SAMe is a supplement which has antioxidant properties and may help dogs with Cushing's disease with liver complications.

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    A Natural Product for Canine Cushings Disease


    This herbal remedy contains herbs such as sarsaparilla, astragalus, milk thistle, turmeric, and more. It promotes healthy skin and coat and helps support proper muscle tone. It also reduces thirst and supports normal urination. Many dog parents have used this herbal remedy with very good results.

  • Diet

    Dogs with Cushing's disease should be fed a high-protein diet. Protein can help prevent muscle wasting. High quality proteins are also good for the skin and immune system. Also, since dogs with canine Cushings disease are prone to develop hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol and triglycerides) and pancreatitis, the amount of fat in the diet has to be moderately low.

    Finally, dogs with this disease are susceptible to the formation of calcium oxalate bladder stones. Therefore, avoid giving them too much calcium and vitamin C. Also make sure that they have plenty of water intake to avoid stone formation.

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