Is Stress Causing Your Dog's Cushing’s Disease?

Updated on August 22, 2017
DonnaCosmato profile image

Donna partners with Dr. Cathy Alinovi, a retired veterinarian, to create informative pet health articles.

When your dog is stressed, the fight or flight hormone - cortisol - is secreted. Constant stress can ramp up the body's cortisol production and cause your dog to develop Cushing's disease. Dr. Cathy Alinovi of HealthyPAWsibilities has some answers to the most frequently asked questions about this dangerous disease.

Dachshunds are one of the breeds with a predisposition for Cushing's disease.
Dachshunds are one of the breeds with a predisposition for Cushing's disease. | Source

Question 1: What is Cushing's disease (hyperadrenocorticism)?

Dr. Cathy: Cushing’s is over-production of cortisol by the adrenal gland. The adrenal gland is a tiny little gland that sits on top of the kidneys. The adrenal gland, while small, has several functions. It produces hormones for salt balance in the body, sex hormones, and most importantly in Cushing’s disease, cortisol.

“Hyper” means over or too much, “adreno” means the adrenal gland, “corticism” means production of cortisol.

How many types of Cushing's Disease?

  • Iatrogenic (caused by medication)
  • Pituitary-dependent (a tumor of the pituitary gland)
  • Adrenal dependent (tumor on the adrenal gland) Cushing’s

Q2: What causes it?

Dr. Cathy: Cushing’s disease – pituitary dependent (PDH), adrenal dependent (ADH) and iatrogenic – all result from too much cortisol in the body.

In pituitary-dependent Cushing’s, there is a tumor in the pituitary gland, which is a tiny little gland at the base of the brain that makes many hormones to tell body organs how to perform. The pituitary tumor causes overproduction of the hormone that tells the adrenal gland how to function.

In ADH, there is a tumor on the adrenal gland itself, causing the gland to over-function.

In iatrogenic Cushing’s, humans cause the disease by giving too many steroids to their dog, usually as treatments for allergies or cancer.

Cushing's disease can cause muscle atrophy or abdominal distention.
Cushing's disease can cause muscle atrophy or abdominal distention. | Source

Q3: What are the common symptoms?

Dr. Cathy: Cortisol is a stress hormone. When we are stressed, we eat more, we urinate more, and we drink more. The same is true for our dogs; they get hungrier, so they gain weight, they urinate more, which makes them thirsty, and so they drink more. Due to the weight gain, they get round in the belly. Other common symptoms are thin skin, hair loss or thinning coat, muscle wasting, and enlarged liver due to excess sugar storage in the liver.

Breeds Predisposed to Cushing's Disease

Dachshunds
Eskimo/Spitz dogs
Poodles
Terriers

Q4: Are there uncommon signs pet owners should know?

Dr. Cathy: Low thyroid function can occur with Cushing’s since the pituitary gland also controls thyroid function and the cortisol will suppress thyroid function. There can be diabetes along with the Cushing’s disease due to the effects of cortisol on the kidneys and kidney involvement in insulin production.

Excessive cortisol also leads to:

  • Hardening of the skin
  • Black heads (comedones)
  • Frequent bladder infections with a predisposition to bladder stones
  • Panting from weak chest muscles
  • Brain malfunction from growing brain (pituitary) tumor

Other unusual signs are tumors around the rectum in neutered dogs (tumors in that region are common in unaltered dogs, but not in altered dogs).

Q 5: Are there side effects from prescription medicines that mimic CD?

Dr. Cathy: When steroids are given on a daily basis and/or at too high a dose, it can cause iatrogenic Cushing’s, as discussed above. These steroids are given for dogs with extreme allergies or as cancer therapy. Steroids (prednisone) produce a cortisol-like effect on the body and all the same symptoms as Cushing’s disease may develop.

Cast your vote for your favorite pet

Which is your favorite pet?

See results

Q6: What is the diagnostic procedure?

Dr. Cathy: A good history will quickly rule in or out iatrogenic Cushing’s because if your dog is not taking steroids, it won’t develop iatrogenic disease.

If some of the liver enzymes are elevated when screening blood work is performed, then more testing is required.

Measuring cortisol levels in the blood, and how the levels change in response to giving cortisol is how the test is done to determine if PDH or ADH exist. At that point, an ultrasound of the abdomen will show one enlarged adrenal gland in the case of ADH to determine the difference between the two. More recently, some veterinarians use a newer test to measure cortisol in the first morning urine. This is an inexpensive test to rule in or out the disease.

Cushing's Disease in Dogs

Q7: What are the treatments for Cushing's disease?

Dr. Cathy: Iatrogenic is easily treated by slowly decreasing the dosage of prednisone the dog is taking. ADH is a little bit more difficult; if the tumor is only in one adrenal gland, it can be surgically removed.

PDH is the hardest to treat for several reasons. First, the pituitary gland is hidden deep in the skull so it is hard to access. Secondly, the pituitary is essential for life; removal of the gland will affect all body functions, not just the adrenal gland. Therefore, medication that suppresses adrenal gland function is given to slow the signs of Cushing’s disease.

Q8: What is Western medicine's treatment for Cushing’s?

Dr. Cathy: Three drugs treat Cushing’s:

  • Lysodren
  • Trilostane
  • Selegiline

Lysodren works by destroying the adrenal gland slowly so it cannot make too much cortisol. Trilostane inhibits steroid production by the adrenal gland. Selegiline works in the pituitary gland by decreasing hormone production to the adrenal gland. Regardless of the medication, they are all quite expensive and have serious side effects.

Q9: What alternative medicine approaches are there?

Dr. Cathy: Herbal medicine looks at the whole picture of the Cushingoid dog such as how advanced is the disease, is the dog hot or cold, does the dog drink a lot, are pulses weak on the right or the left, etc. Classical Chinese herbal formulas include:

  • Mai Men Dong
  • Xia Xiao Feng
  • Jin Gui Shen Qi Wan

Food therapy includes switching to a grain-free diet as sugars and grains will worsen the effects of cortisol on the body. The food should also be low in carbohydrates as the body can turn carbs into sugars as well. Because dry dog food is full of either grain or carbohydrates or both, the dog should eat real food – cooked or raw.

Nutraceuticals and homeopathics can also help to stabilize a Cushing’s patient.

Q10: What else should dog owners know about canine Cushing’s disease?

Dr. Cathy: Cushing’s disease doesn’t just happen overnight; it takes months or years to develop.

Early signs of the disease are pot-bellied dogs that don’t lose weight. These dogs usually eat lower quality dry dog food their whole lives.

Screening blood work early in the disease will reveal only elevation of one liver enzyme – AlkPhos or Alkaline Phosphatase – an enzyme that goes up when there is too much cortisol in the body. Dogs that have stress have elevated cortisol, just like humans. If the condition is allowed to continue, Cushing’s disease can develop.

Disclaimer

This veterinary medical information is based on information provided during a telephone interview with a professional, qualified, retired veterinarian. However, it is provided for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own veterinarian. Always seek your veterinarian’s advice about your pet’s health.

While this information is periodically researched and updated (under the guidance of veterinary input) in the attempt to be timely and factual, no guarantee is given the information is correct, complete, and/or up-to-date.

Recommendations as to therapeutics, diagnostics and best standards of practice in the veterinary industry and/or opinions between professionals may differ or change as technologies and information changes. You should not use this article as your sole source of information on any matter of veterinary health or attempt to self-diagnose or treat your pets as the information herein may not be appropriate for your pet. The safest option for you and your pet is to rely on the advice of your veterinarian to diagnose and recommend the best treatment options.

Questions & Answers

    © 2014 Donna Cosmato

    What kinds of pet health issues have you encountered?

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No comments yet.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, pethelpful.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://pethelpful.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)