Cushing’s disease: A quality of life issue

Hyperadrenocorticism, or Cushing’s disease as it is more commonly known, is caused by a hyperactive adrenal gland that pumps too many steroids and other hormones into a dog’s bloodstream. A tumor, or growth, in the adrenal or the pituitary gland can also be responsible for the disease.

Usually dogs afflicted with Cushing’s disease are six years old or more, but the disease sometimes occurs in younger dogs.

Symptoms of Cushing’s disease

Cushing’s disease causes the overproduction of any one or more of the wide range of hormones produced by the adrenal gland. The symptoms of Cushing’s disease vary widely, depending on which hormone is affected, and this makes detection difficult. Some symptoms are extremely subtle.

Cushing’s disease often affects the production of a natural hormonal steroid called glucocorticoid. This makes some of a dog’s muscle tissue break down, giving him a thin-legged, potbellied look. It can also adversely affect a dog’s ability to concentrate urine, making him drink and urinate more than normal.

The steroids can also suppress the immune system, leaving the dog vulnerable to a secondary infection. If the pancreas is affected, dogs will be stricken with vomiting and often diarrhea.

Other symptoms include, but are not limited to, hair loss, increased appetite, calcified lumps under the skin, panting and high blood pressure.


Cushing’s disease is hard to diagnose since there is no one test that will identify it. Veterinarians generally perform several blood and urine tests over a period of time, and then compare the results to normal levels. If Cushing’s is suspected, an x-ray and/or ultrasonography can help reveal the presence or absence of a tumor.


Cushing’s disease can be treated medically and surgically, depending on the severity of the symptoms and the dog’s general health. The surgical option is to remove the growth that stimulates the hormone. The medical option is a prescription medicine to slow down production in the adrenal gland. Most dogs are treated medically because the surgery carries significant risks and should only be used when medical treatment has proved ineffective.


While Cushing’s disease itself is rarely life threatening, its side effect of a weakened immune system can make dogs more vulnerable to other diseases, as well as causing fatigue and exercise intolerance. In rare cases, there are no symptoms at all.

The biggest issue with Cushing’s disease is its impact on your dog’s quality of life. If it is adversely affected, consult with your veterinarian about the best way to return your dog to a healthy, comfortable life.

Source: Adapted from the American Animal Hospital Association