Cushing’s disease was first diagnosed by Dr. Harvey Williams Cushing. It was discovered first in humans however, with time, we realised that dogs above 5-6 years can also get it. It is also seen in cats but it isn’t as common. You must watch out for Cushing’s disease in dogs as they grow older.
Cushing’s disease is also known as hypercortisolism which better describes the condition. Cushing’s disease is a hormonal issue where the pancreas starts to over excessively secrete cortisol hormones.
Cushing’s Disease In Dogs
Cortisol is essentially our fight or flight hormone or our stress hormone. We all need a bit of cortisol, it protects us during stressful situations.
When we are fighting or running away from a predator, we don’t have time to eat or sleep. Our heart rate is fast to pump extra blood to our body, our muscles tense up to sustain for longer and our liver starts to conserve fat so that we have extra storage of energy.
It’s okay to be under pressure for a small duration. It helps us burn the midnight oil, finish a project, work without food or sleep, but imagine feeling like that all the time – that’s exactly what your dog feels when they have the Cushing’s disease.
For a dog, the Cushing’s disease feels more like sitting on the vet’s table all the time! Imagine how stressful it will be for them.
Types Of Cushing’s Disease
There are essentially two types of Cushing’s disease.
Pituitary Dependent Cushing’s Disease
This is the more common type of the disease and it affects about 85% of dogs with this condition. This happens usually when there is a small tumour in the pituitary gland which is at the base of the brain.
Adrenal Dependent Cushing’s Disease
There is usually a tumour on the adrenaline gland which is on top of our kidneys.
Cushing’s Disease can also be differentiated based on the part of the adrenaline gland it has affected. It usually affects the middle layer of the adrenal gland that is responsible for secreting cortisol. This is the most common group of Cushing’s Disease; it’s called typical Cushing’s disease.
A-typical Cushing’s disease affects the outer or inner layer of the adrenal layer of the gland. The outer layer is responsible for producing aldosterone or ‘electrolyte producing hormone’ and the inner layer is responsible for producing sex hormones – estrogen, progesterone and testosterone respectively.
Symptoms & Diagnosis
So, how do we diagnose Cushing’s disease in dogs? There is a wide range of symptoms and unfortunately, it is misdiagnosed with a range of other diseases because of the overlapping symptoms.
Symptoms of the Cushing’s disease include:
- A sudden increase in appetite and thirst
- A sudden increase in weight around the tummy
- Change in their mood – they are always anxious, more likely to bite.
- Sudden loss of hair
- Thinning of the skin
- Change in skin colour
- Excessive panting
- Weak immunity – your dog is suddenly more prone to infections or it is difficult for infections to go
- The weakening of hind legs (in rare cases)
If doctors suspect Cushing’s Disease, they may suggest the ACTH stimulation hormone which studies the workings of the adrenal gland or low dose dexamethasone suppression test. This test allows doctors to see how the dog reacts to synthetic cortisol (dexamethasone). They take a blood test before and after the test to observe any changes.
Unfortunately, Cushing’s Disease is rarely reversible. In rare cases, we can expect a full recovery from the disease is when doctors operate on the affected part of the adrenaline gland or the pituitary gland to remove the tumour. However, after most surgeries, dogs will need medication to naturally substitute for the lost functions of the adrenaline gland.
Other ways of treatment include medication. Cushing’s disease involves strong medications that have serious side effects. However, if you detect the illness at an early stage you can help them live a normal life.
Yes, prevention is always better than cure. So, how do we prevent Cushing’s disease in dogs? Diet plays a very important role in this condition. Remember, increased amounts of cortisol also increase the chances of diabetes in dogs. Hence for starters, we need to stop giving them food that would increase stress in their body – this includes sugars and other table scraps that just aren’t good for them.
Avoid feeding them starch and grains because carbohydrates from grains contain a high amount of sugar which adds stress to the pancreas.
If your dog has allergies, try to find natural ways to cure them. Prednisone is very commonly given to dogs to cure allergies but this also contains synthetic cortisol and may lead to Cushing’s disease later on.
Certain herbs like rosemary and ashwagandha help keep dogs calm and significantly reduces the amount of secretion of cortisol.
While controlling the level of stress, you should also control external stress. Are they scared of anything in specific? Or is there any sudden change in the house (like a new dog or a new person) that is making them uncomfortable? Make sure all changes are introduced to them gradually.
Dogs don’t understand change the same way as we do. So it is important to take it slow.
Lastly, as your dog approaches their senior years, make sure to get regular health checkups and blood tests to make sure illnesses get detected on time.