February 15, 2009 "Ask Seth"

My Vet thinks my dog has Cushing's Disease. What causes it and is it treatable?

Dear Seth,

My vet thinks my dog, Richie, has Cushing's Disease and wants to run a bunch of tests to confirm this. What is Cushing's Disease? What causes it? What is its treatment and prognosis?


Cushing's Disease is the common name for hyperadrenocortism, when your pet's adrenal gland is hyperactive and pumps too many steroids (glucocorticoids) and other hormones into your pet's blood. The primary cause is a growth (tumor) in either the adrenal or pituitary glands. Having excess steroids in your blood causes a range of symptoms, from subtle to extreme. The steroids can suppress your pet's immune system and make him or her more susceptible to secondary infections. It also can affect the pancreas and cause vomiting or diarrhea. Some other symptoms include hair loss, calcification deposits under the skin, increased appetite, panting, and high blood pressure.

It is difficult to diagnose Cushing's because there is no one test to identify it. Your vet will perform multiple blood and urine tests and compare your pet's results to normal ones. X-rays and ultrasound may also be recommended.

Cushing's can usually be treated with medications that decrease hormone production in the adrenal gland. Surgical treatments carry much greater risks and should only be considered when medical treatments are ineffective.

Cushing's Disease itself is rarely life-threatening. But it will weaken your pet's immune system and can make him or her more vulnerable to other conditions, like exercise intolerance and fatigue. So while it may not be life-threatening, Cushing's can hamper your pet's quality of life. If so, consult with your veterinarian about what can be done to help your pet return to a comfortable, healthy lifestyle.

Seth Mayersohn, CVT

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