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Condition Spotlight: Cushing’s Disease

As pets age, you may notice behavior changes that you might attribute to them getting older. It’s true some conditions occur with age, but by monitoring your pet closely, you can catch and address these issues in a timely fashion. In addition, diseases can be managed more effectively when caught early, keeping your pet more comfortable for longer.

Cushing’s disease, or hyperadrenocorticism, is one of these conditions. It may start with subtle changes but can lead to serious complications and even be life-threatening if left unchecked. Our veterinary team wants you to know what causes Cushing’s disease, how to recognize it in your pet, and how we can help pets diagnosed with it. 

What is Cushing’s Disease?

Cushing’s disease occurs when a pet’s adrenal glands produce too much cortisol. A malignant or benign tumor on the pituitary or adrenal glands often causes this condition. It can also result from excessive use of steroids, known as iatrogenic Cushing’s syndrome. 

Both dogs and cats (and humans!) can get Cushing’s disease, although dogs are most commonly affected. It is usually diagnosed in middle-aged to older dogs and cats (7-12 years).  

Cushing’s disease appears to have a hereditary component and is more common in the following dog breeds:

  • Poodles, especially miniature poodles
  • Dachshunds
  • Boston terriers
  • Boxers
  • Yorkshire terriers
  • Staffordshire terriers

Cushing’s is often marked by one or more of the following signs, although it is rare that all these symptoms are present:

  • Increased appetite
  • Excessive thirst or drinking
  • Increased urination
  • Panting
  • Lethargy
  • Muscle weakness
  • Thin skin
  • Enlarged abdomen

If you notice any of the symptoms above, contact us immediately to set up an appointment. Pets with Cushing’s disease are at increased risk of diabetes, kidney disease, blood clots, and high blood pressure.

Diagnosis of Cushing’s Disease

Diagnosing Cushing’s disease is sometimes complicated, but the veterinarians at WVG are trained to hunt down elusive conditions. We begin with a complete physical exam and laboratory tests such as a complete blood panel, urinalysis, and urine culture. Next, your veterinarian will recommend adrenal function tests, including adrenal low dose testing and dexamethasone suppression tests. Since these tests can result in a false positive, an abdominal ultrasound may also be recommended to help to rule out other diseases that can cause similar symptoms. 

An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of the adrenal glands is the most definitive way to diagnose Cushing’s disease. While we don’t have an MRI machine on the premises, we may refer you to a specialist who does in order to get a final diagnosis. 

Treatment of Cushing’s Disease

Your pet’s treatment will depend upon the cause or type of Cushing’s disease found. 

Adrenal tumor: Treatment of an adrenal tumor generally requires abdominal surgery to remove it. If the surgeon can successfully remove the entire tumor, your pet may regain normal health. However, this is a very complex surgery that requires careful post-surgical monitoring. Non-surgical treatment is also an option; you and your veterinarian will discuss the best plan for your pet. 

Iatrogenic Cushing’s Disease: Because this type of disease results from the overuse of steroids, treatment usually involves decreasing the dose of steroids over time. Unfortunately, discontinuing steroid therapy will usually cause the condition treated with steroids to reemerge, so you’ll need to discuss the pros and cons with your veterinarian. 

Pituitary tumor: Treatment for this type of Cushing’s disease also depends upon the type of pituitary tumor: functional or non-functional. Many pituitary tumors are managed with two different medications. Radiation therapy is another treatment option that has recently shown good outcomes by reducing the tumor size with few side effects. Surgical removal of the tumor itself is not a widely available option. However, some medical centers are having success with surgical removal of the entire pituitary gland itself as a treatment. Removal of the pituitary gland requires lifelong hormone supplementation to replace the loss of pituitary function. 

Because treatment of Cushing’s disease is complex, regardless of the type, you should plan for regular blood test monitoring and medication adjustments throughout your pet’s lifetime. The good news is, that most pets respond well to Cushing’s disease treatment with few side effects, provided careful management and observation are kept up for the rest of the pet’s life.

If you have questions about Cushing’s disease or want to discuss your pet’s health, give us a call or schedule an appointment.