7 Warnings Signs of Cushing's Disease in Dogs Catching Cushing's Disease Early

BY | October 27 | COMMENTS PUBLISHED BY
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Cushing's disease is one of those diseases that is extremely difficult to detect because the symptoms can be linked to such a wide number of different ailments. Find out here some specific warning signs to look out for as your dog ages.

In a dog’s belly, near their kidneys, lives the adrenal gland. This gland produces a hormone called cortisol which affects the functions of many organs in the body. Cushing’s disease in dogs, otherwise known as hyperadrenocorticism, is the overproduction of cortisol, and is a condition that becomes increasingly likely as your dog ages. Too much cortisol in the body can cause a number of problems, including the suppression of a dog’s immune system, thereby increasing their chances of getting sick.

It can be challenging to diagnose, and a bit complicated to treat. As with most veterinary health conditions, early detection, diagnosis, and treatments (like Vetoryl) are incredibly important. Here are some early warning signs to look out for.

1. Increased Thirst and Urination

The onset of Cushing’s disease can be a long, slow process. One of the first signs of this disease is excessive thirst and urination. You may find that you’re refilling your pet’s water bowl more often. They may be asking to go outside more frequently. Paired with this, you may find that your well-trained dog is suddenly having accidents in the house.

Cushing’s is a disease more often found in older dogs, and as such, at its onset, these symptoms can sometimes be confused with urinary tract infections or even the senility that can come with old age. Additionally, increased thirst could also be a sign of kidney disease. If increased thirst and urination are paired with any of the symptoms below, you may want to ask your veterinarian to run diagnostic tests.

2. Increased Appetite and Weight Gain, Especially with a Pot Bellied Appearance

Higher levels of cortisone will increase a dog’s appetite. For this reason, they may eat more, and as a result, gain weight. This weight gain can make it hard for your dog to move around, jump up on furniture, or even climb the stairs.

Cortisone will also cause a dog’s abdominal ligaments to relax and their liver to become bloated -- causing a pot-bellied appearance.

As with urinary incontinence, these effects of Cushing’s can be confused with other issues elderly dogs commonly face, including arthritis. If you are suspicious of Cushing’s, ask your vet to feel your dog’s abdomen to see if their liver is enlarged. Sometimes the result of this simple hands-on exam will encourage your doctor to do further testing to either diagnose or rule out the onset of Cushing’s disease.

3. Panting

Panting is normal if a dog has exerted themself, during times of stress, or if they’re hot. However, if your dog appears to be panting more than usual, and if this occurs in conjunction with the other signs mentioned here, it could be an indication of Cushing’s.

4. Symmetrical Hair Loss

A dog with Cushing’s may lose fur, although typically, the fur on your dog’s legs and head will remain intact. Instead, Cushing’s-related hair loss occurs primarily on a dog’s midsection. Hair loss caused by Cushing’s is typically symmetrical -- occurring evenly on both sides of the dog’s body.

5. Thin Skin that Bruises Easily

Try gently pinching a fold of skin on your dog’s abdomen, near their flank. A dog with Cushing’s may have skin that feels thin to the touch, as opposed to the plumpness of healthy skin.

Of course, if you notice bruises on your dog, you should tell your vet.

6. Recurrence of Infections

Ear and eye infections may occur more and more frequently in a dog who’s dealing with Cushing’s disease.

7. A Change in Behavior

Many dogs with Cushing's will show a change in behavior, acting more aggressive, or not as calm as they usually are. Behavioral changes can signal a whole host of other health problems as well, so it's always a good idea to alert your vet.

Confusion with Other Conditions

Many of the warning signs mentioned here are also associated with a number of other ailments that can affect older dogs. Cushing’s is difficult to diagnose in part because of the universal nature of many of its symptoms. A few diseases that could be confused with Cushing’s:

  • Urinary incontinence is associated with old age and urinary tract infections.
  • A bloated belly is associated with gastric torsion and gastric dilation, which if left untreated, can be fatal.
  • Hair loss in similarly symmetrical patterns is associated with hypothyroidism.
  • Increased thirst and other related symptoms are associated with the onset of diabetes.

Cushing’s disease is being diagnosed more and more frequently, so don’t hesitate to ask your vet about looking into this as a possible cause for your dog’s symptoms.

Dog Cushing's Disease

Cushing's disease, or hyperadrenocorticism, occurs when a dog’s adrenal glands, located near the stomach and kidneys, overproduce the hormone cortisol. Cushing’s disease is most commonly found in elderly dogs, typically 6 years or older, but it can occur in a dog of any age. Some of the symptoms of Cushing’s disease are commonly associated with the natural aging process, which makes testing for the disease very important.

Causes of Cushing's Disease in Dogs

The pituitary gland produces an adrenocorticotrophic (ACTH) hormone, which is released into the bloodstream. This hormone tells the adrenal glands how much cortisol to produce to help the body handle daily stresses. The pituitary gland senses when there is enough cortisol in the blood, then stops producing ACTH in response. Small benign tumors in the pituitary gland cause the gland to ignore the levels of cortisol, allowing the overproduction. Small tumors in the adrenal glands can also cause them to overproduce cortisol, ignoring pituitary control, poisoning the bloodstream. Unfortunately, Cushing’s disease can also be caused by extended doses of corticosteroids.

As there is no known way to effectively prevent Cushing’s disease, it is crucial to perform diagnostic tests early enough to prevent further damage. As dogs reach middle-age, around five or six years old, more frequent visits to the veterinarian for blood tests may become necessary. There are several breeds that tend to suffer from Cushing’s, such as beagles, Boston terriers, boxers, dachshunds, and German shepherds, among others.

Cushing’s Disease Tests Explained


The Urine Cortisol/Creatinine Ratio Test can only rule out Cushing’s disease as a possibility, by comparing the excreted protein metabolite to normal levels. High cortisol levels in the urine may indicate high levels in the bloodstream, while balanced levels rule out Cushing’s disease. Many other conditions may cause false positives, rendering this test non-diagnostic.

The ACTH Stimulation Test first requires a blood sample. The dog is then injected with the hormone ACTH, stimulating the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. After a couple hours, blood cortisol levels are measured and compared to the original blood sample. A dog with Cushing’s disease has a greater elevation of cortisol. This test cannot provide information regarding whether the Cushing’s is pituitary or adrenal.

The Low Dose Dexamethasone Suppression Test is considered the best test to diagnose Cushing's disease. First, a blood sample is taken in the morning. The dog is then injected with a small dose of dexamethasone, a synthetic glucocorticoid, and samples are taken again at four hours and eight hours. Dexamethasone suppresses cortisol production in healthy dogs, but since a Cushingoid dog lacks the ability to do so, the cortisol levels remain the same. This test cannot provide information regarding whether the Cushing’s is pituitary or adrenal.

The High Dose Dexamethasone Suppression Test may be used to determine whether the dog has the pituitary or adrenal form of Cushing's. A blood sample is taken in the morning. The dog is then injected with a large dose of dexamethasone, and samples are taken again at four hours and eight hours. Adrenal tumors are indicated by zero suppression of cortisol, while pituitary tumors may still have some suppression ability.

Cushing's Disease Symptoms in Dogs

Some common symptoms of Cushing’s disease include hair loss primarily on body, unusually thin skin, propensity for bruising, hard calcified lumps on skin, lethargy, swollen belly, increased appetite, thirst, and urination.Some less common symptoms are sudden difficulty breathing, weakness, panting, and stiff walking, possibly with paws knuckled over.

Cushing's Disease in Dogs Treatment

Treatment for pituitary dependent Cushing’s disease is often Lysodren or Mitotane, and Trilostane (aka Vetoryl). These are oral medications which are to be administered for the rest of the dog’s life. These medications work to suppress cortisol production in the adrenal glands. Treatment for adrenal dependent Cushing’s disease is often surgery to remove the tumor, sometimes in addition to Trilostane.

More on Senior Dogs

The Best Senior Dog Pet Supplies
10 Must-Ask Questions at Senior Dog Vet Visits
Senior Dog Care: Keeping Your Senior Pet Healthy

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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