Our Veterinary Blog

What is Cushing’s Disease in Dogs?

No pet parent chooses to hear that their fur baby is sick. Cushing’s disease is a serious illness that requires immediate treatment.

Cushing’s disease in dogs is when their body makes too much of the hormone, which causes an elevation in cortisol. It can occur in the adrenals or the pituitary gland. It can also occur as a result of the long-term use of steroids.   

Cushing’s disease can be managed with medication, or it might be possible to correct it with surgery. If you want to learn about Cushing’s disease in dogs, see the article below.

Sad dog with cushing's disease

Cushing’s Disease?

Cortisol is a naturally occurring steroid in the body. It is produced by the adrenals, which are two small glands just above the kidneys. Cortisol can help the body acclimatize in times of stress. It also manages proper body weight, tissue formation, and a healthy coat.

When your dog has Cushing’s syndrome, their body makes too much of this hormone. Hyperadrenocorticism is the medical term for the condition. Too much cortisol makes the immune system susceptible to diseases and infections.

What Triggers Cushing’s Illness in Dogs?

Cushing’s disorder is challenging to understand, as it could be due to several factors. You must get your veterinarian to treat this illness, as the treatment will depend on the condition’s exact cause. Cushing’s in canines could occur for a variety of reasons.

Pituitary Cushing’s (Dependent)

Pituitary Dependent Cushing’s is the most common form, and it occurs due to a benign tumor on the pituitary gland. The tumor causes an overabundance of the adrenocorticotrophic hormone in the front of the brain’s pituitary gland. This hormone triggers the adrenal glands to create excessive amounts of cortisol, which then causes Cushing’s disease.

Adrenal Dependent Hyperadrenocorticism

Another type of Cushing’s disease, this particular form occurs when a tumor develops within one of the adrenal glands. The growth can be benign or malignant and forces the adrenal glands to produce high levels of hormones, which causes Cushing’s disease.

Cushing’s Syndrome Triggered by Steroids

Long-term steroid use can lead to Cushing’s syndrome in some dogs. The term Iatrogenic means that the illness is due to medical treatment that has been administered. Steroids are given to treat a variety of medical conditions. One example of this is allergies. Long-term use of steroids can wear down the body.

What Are the Indicators of Cushing’s in Dogs?

Cushing’s disease can often be challenging to diagnose. The condition shares some of the same symptoms with other illnesses. Another reason is that sometimes pet parents will assume that the symptoms they see in their pup are due to them getting older. However, there are certain symptoms you must watch out for when considering Cushing’s disease:

  • Hair loss
  • Excessive thirst
  • Increased urination
  • Increased appetite
  • Excessive panting
  • Thin or fragile skin
  • Decreased activity
  • Chronic skin infections
  • Potbellied appearance or distended belly

It may take some time for these symptoms to develop. It usually takes about a year or so for symptoms to surface, which is why so many pet parents dismiss the problem as something else, like aging.

Unfortunately, this misunderstanding of the illness is why so many pups go undiagnosed until they are in the advanced stage of the disease. Early treatment is essential for the dog’s prognosis.

How Will My Vet Diagnose Cushing’s Disease?

Your vet will test your dog in a few different ways to see how they respond and if they can rule anything out. Blood and urine test are often required for an accurate diagnosis. If the pup’s urine is dilute and the liver enzymes are high, the vet may suggest testing for Cushing’s disease, especially when other symptoms are present.

Cushing’s disease can be determined with an adrenocorticotropic hormone stimulation test. The test measures how well the adrenal glands function in response to this hormone, which is the hormone that allows them to make cortisol.

Blood tests are given, and your vet will see how the dog is affected. If the pup’s cortisol level increases a little, it means that their adrenal response is expected. If the level goes up too high, it means that they have Cushing’s disease.

An additional test called a low-dose dexamethasone suppression test might also be used. The dog will receive a shot of the steroid dexamethasone, and the cortisol level will decrease within a few hours if the pup is healthy. If the cortisol level does not decrease, it can indicate that a tumor is blocking the medication from working. An ultrasound determines if there is a tumor present.

What is the Treatment for Dogs Who Have Cushing’s Disease?

The location of the tumor determines what type of treatment will be administered. Most pups with Cushing’s disease have a pituitary tumor. The tumor only measures to be millimeters in size and is typically benign. However, because it creates and releases uncontrolled amounts of hyperadrenocorticism, it isn’t easy to contain, as excessive amounts of cortisol are distributed.

If Cushing’s disease results from a tumor on your dog’s adrenal glands, the veterinarian may be able to remove it with surgery. However, surgical intervention may not be an option if the tumor has spread. Most dogs with Cushing’s disease are treated with medication. Vetoryl is the drug most commonly used in dogs with Cushing’s syndrome.

Vetoryl works by destroying a part of the adrenal cortex. Even though the pituitary gland tumor is still secreting hyperadrenocorticism, the cortisol level in their system is normal. Drug levels will need to be monitored so that they do not destroy all of the cortex and cortisol level remains within range. If Cushing’s syndrome were caused by steroid use, your vet would need to stop the steroids gradually.

Cushing disease, caused by a tumor on the adrenal glands, is less common. Fifty percent of these tumors are malignant and proliferate. Only if the growth is benign does the surgery have a chance of curing it, which is not definite. Once treatment begins, you may notice your pup drinking less.


Cushing’s disease is a complicated illness with several possible causes. As long as your pup responds well to medication, they can live a normal life. However, they will require the medication for the rest of their life. If you believe your dog may have Cushing’s disease, take them to the vet as soon as possible.

At Main Street Veterinary Center in Bartow, FL, our passion is caring for animals and helping them live a happy and healthy life. If you have any questions or would like to schedule an appointment, give us a call at (863) 534-9584.

Recent Posts

About Us

Family is family, whether it has two legs or four. At Main Street Veterinary Center, we've spent the last 40 years healing and caring for your pets. As a family-operated practice, we know that family is about more than simply being related. Animals give us the ability to develop strong bonds and feel great compassion for a fellow living creature.