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Cushing’s Disorder in Dogs (or hypercortisolism or hyperandrenocorticism)… Symptoms, Treatments and all That!

As a pet owner, it’s often up to us to be the first person in your dog’s life to recognize that something isn’t “right” about their health. After all, there shouldn’t be anyone in a better situation to notice subtle changes in your dog’s appearance or behavior, which is why we here at IndulgeYourPet like to write articles like these so that if you begin to “notice” that something isn’t right, you can start to look for additional signs that might indicate what is wrong with your dog.

This is why…

We here at IndulgeYourPet wanted to write this “brief” article about the medical condition known as Cushing’s Disorder so that you might have a better understanding of what this medical condition is and what you should be looking for to determine whether or not your dog suffers from it. But it’s important to understand that while you may be your dog’s best friend, you’re not their doctor! This is why if you feel like something isn’t “right” about your dog, you will want to have them checked out by a professional.


We should point out that we here at IndulgeYourPet are not doctors, veterinarians, or medical professionals. All we are is a bunch of folks passionate about animals and only want what’s best for them. So, if you feel like your pet is suffering from any medical condition, always remember…

“When in doubt, have a vet check it out!”

So, now that we’ve got that covered let’s turn our attention to the question at hand, which is…

What is Cushing’s Disorder?

Cushing Disorder/Disease (also known as hypercortisolism or hyperadrenocorticism) is an endocrine disease caused by the adrenal gland producing and secreting too much of a hormone called Cortisol, which is terrible!

Normally, Cortisol is a substance that will help an individual (dog or person) with their stress response. It also helps in regulating:

  • The immune system,
  • Control weight,
  • Fight infections,
  • And moderate blood sugar levels.

This is quite a list when you think about it, which is why Cushing’s disease can be pretty severe if not treated properly.

Causes of Cushing’s Disorder

Two primary causes result in dogs getting this disorder:

  • Pituitary Dependent is the most common when a small tumor is located within the pituitary gland.
  • Adrenal Dependence, while an adrenal gland tumor is also less common, is in a gland above the kidneys.

In both cases, the result is that the patient’s body produces too much cortisol. But because Cortisol is also a medication that can be prescribed to an individual or dog, it’s also possible that a dog can also develop Cushing’s disorder when they are given corticosteroid medication (e.g., Prednisone, dexamethasone, triamcinolone, etc.). Over a long period or at high doses, this is called Iatrogenic Cushing’s Syndrome.

There are also certain breeds that Cushing’s Disorder is more commonly found in certain species, including the:

Symptoms of Cushing’s Disease in dogs

Some symptoms that can be related to Cushing’s Disorder may include:

  • muscle wasting
  • thinning of the skin
  • potbellied appearance
  • excessive drinking
  • urination
  • weight gain
  • hair loss
  • prevalence of typically minor infections.

As noted before, Cortisol is an essential substance within the body which, when “out of whack,” can cause a wide variety of “problems” without being centrally located in one area. This is why diagnosing Cushing’s disorder is quite tricky.

Diagnosis of Cushing’s Disorder

Unfortunately, no “one test” can be administered by your veterinarian to get a 100% “positive” diagnosis of Cushing’s disease. This is why your veterinarian will likely order a few tests so that they can begin “ruling out” possibilities of what is causing your dog to have the symptoms she or she is suffering from, which trigger your concern.

A blood and urine test…

Which will detect cortisol levels in your dog. Typically, this test must be performed twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon/evening. That is because levels of cortisol change throughout the day. This will then be followed up with a saliva test near 11  p.m., leading to a roughly 90% correct diagnosis.

If nothing simple is ruled out, your veterinarian will likely order a few tests to screen for hormonal levels, which can also help determine if your dog may suffer from Cushing’s disease.

Two tests that are commonly administered include:

An ACTH stimulation test (also called the cosyntropin, tetracosactide, or Synacthen test)  is to get a measurement of the adrenal gland operating in response to the hormone ACTH (or the Adrenocorticotrophic hormone produced by the pituitary gland), which stimulates the making of cortisol. Your veterinarian will take a sample of your dog’s blood before and after the shot of ACTH to see how the hormone impacts it.

The other test…

That can be done called a low-dose dexamethasone suppression test (dexamethasone is an artificial version of cortisol) or LLDS. Again, blood samples will be drawn before and after the shot to monitor your dog’s response.

Then, if your veterinarian is still thinking of Cushing’s disease, they’ll probably do an ultrasound scan of your dog’s abdomen. This will be to see if there is a tumor on the adrenal glands because this will affect the treatment needed. The average cost of diagnosing Cushing’s is around $1500-$2500 (Ouch!).

Treatments Options

If your dog has Cushing’s disease due to adrenal gland tumors, surgery may be an option and could cure your dog. If the pituitary tumor has spread from multiple locations surgery will not be an option, and medication will need to be the route taken.

If medication is taken…

As your veterinarian prescribes, your dog can usually live a relatively everyday life. The typical surgery cost for Cushing’s is $2500-$10,000. The most common drug prescribed is called Trilostane /Vetoryl. To note, the FDA withdrew Trilostane for human use in 1994. It has since been replaced by Vetoryl, which uses a different binding agent in its make-up. Even though Trilostane was started over 20 years ago for humans, it is still permitted for animals.

There is also Mitotane/Lysodren, an older drug that, while it costs less, has a lot of side effects. If you go the prescription route, your dog will need regular veterinary visits with blood tests to confirm that the medications are working at the correct dose. The monthly cost of the different prescriptions is seen below;

  • Trilostane: $30-$40
  • Vetoryl: $70-$100
  • Mitotane: $15-$20
  • Lysodren: $10-$15

Remember that with prescriptions, your dog must go in for regular blood work for $200-$400 every 4-6 months after the appropriate dosage is determined.

At this point, it never hurts to remind folks again that we’re not doctors or veterinarians, so you should always have your pet examined by an expert if you feel they have any possible medical issues. However, we do feel confident in saying that if your dog does end up developing Cushing’s disease, things can get a bit expensive!

This is why…

We here at IndulgeYourPet always encourage folks to consider purchasing a pet insurance policy anytime they adopt or buy a new animal. If they develop a sickness or injury, you, as their parent/owner, won’t be on the “hook” for 100% of their medical expenses.

For more information about who we “feel” currently offers the “best” pet insurance policies in the industry, we would encourage you to check out our Best Pet Insurance Companies article.

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