This Article is About
adrenal glands
hormone cortisol
stomach area
rare illness
behavioural changes
dog food
medical conditions
Cushing Syndrome - Dogs
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Cushing Syndrome  -  Dogs

My Labrador was diagnosed as being overweight six months ago. Since then he has been on a strict weight control diet. Initially, the vet recommended a diet dog food which we gradually introduced into his normal feed times. After a month we took him back to the vet to assess his progress. He had actually put weight on!

The vet seemed surprised. Once I’d confirmed that I had stuck rigidly to the diet, he asked if there had been any physical or behavioural changes in the dog since the last appointment. The only things I had noticed were drinking and urinating more. He was also suffering a little stiffness in his legs. The vet tested for common conditions that would explain these symptoms. But after a while, when weight loss was still not happening, he suggested testing for the more rare illness called Cushing’s disease. Now I’ll be honest. I had never heard of this condition. After some intensive, panic induced research, this is what I found out.

What Causes Cushing’s?

More commonly, Cushing’s disease is caused by an overproduction of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is made in the adrenal glands which are found in the stomach area near to the kidneys. The hormone cortisol carries out many jobs in the body and therefore the effects of an overproduction can be many and varied, making the disease difficult to pin down. If a dog has been prescribed steroids for other medical conditions, this can also cause the production of too much cortisol.

Types of Cushing’s

There are 2 types of Cushing’s:

1. Pituitary dependent Cushing’s – this is by far the most common. About 80% or more of all dogs diagnosed with the disease have this type. It’s caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland in the brain. The tumor causes the pituitary to produce large amounts of a hormone which triggers the adrenal glands to overproduce cortisol.

2. Adrenal dependent Cushing’s – between 15 and 20% of all cases are of this type. Again, it’s caused by a tumor, but this time on the adrenal glands. One adrenal gland or both can develop tumors.

Are any dogs more susceptible to Cushing’s?

It appears that older dogs, particularly those over 6 years of age, are more likely to develop Cushing’s. Occasionally, it is found in younger canines. It seems smaller dogs are more likely to develop pituitary dependent Cushing’s, while adrenal dependent Cushing’s is more common in larger breeds.


The most noticeable symptoms are:

• Increased drinking

• Increased appetite

• Increased urination

• Body hair loss (legs and head may not be affected)

• Appearance of a round or “pot belly”

• Skin infections that keep coming back

There are other less common symptoms that may suggest the onset of Cushing’s and these are:

• Excessive panting

• Walking stiff legged

• General weakness or lethargy

• Sudden breathing problems


Because cortisol carries out so many functions in the body, there is no individual test for this condition. My vet carried out a physical examination on the dog and then took blood and urine samples over a period of weeks. I felt compelled to ask what kind of things would indicate the dog had the disease. Apparently the labs look for:

• An increase in the dog’s cholesterol level

• Urine becoming more diluted. They also check for bladder infection. Cortisol suppresses a dog’s immune system leaving then wide open to bacterial infections. One of the most common places for an infection to develop is in the bladder. It may not be apparent to the owner that the dog has an infection.

• An increase in the white blood cell count

• An increase in an enzyme called ALP which is produce in the liver

My next question was “what will happen if the results are positive?” The dog would then be subject to further investigations this time in the form of x-rays and ultrasound. First of all they would x-ray the belly to look for signs of an enlarged liver. If the x-ray picked up calcium around the adrenal glands that would tend to indicate a tumor. Ultrasound could possibly be used to indicate any enlargement of the adrenal glands. Sometimes tumors around the adrenal glands do not show up on ultrasound because they can be "hidden" by fatty tissue. Instead, they would look for tumors growing in the liver or blood vessels.


If the disease was confirmed, more specific tests would be carried out to determine which type of Cushing’s. The treatment of pituitary dependent Cushing’s is generally oral medication which would be lifelong. The only "cure" for Cushing’s is surgery, but it’s complicated and the risks are large. Some of the drugs used to manage the condition can have serious side effects so regular tests would be carried out.

On the other hand, the treatment for adrenal dependent Cushing’s tends to be surgery. The tumors can be either benign or cancerous. If malignant, they can spread to other parts of the body; where in some case they could not be removed.

The good news is that my dog does not have Cushing’s. After some sleepless nights, the results have come back negative. In our case, the symptoms the dog was displaying were linked to his obesity and lack of exercise. The stiffness in his legs is arthritis. I have now changed his feed to a quality diet food which is high in animal protein, low in calories and grain-free. It seems to be doing the trick and weight loss is being achieved. A more consistent exercise program which takes into account his arthritis, is also giving him a new lease of life.

If you recognise any of the symptoms described in this article do not despair. Cushing’s is relatively rare. It can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms can be linked to other more common conditions. However, the prognosis for pituitary dependent Cushing’s (the most common type) is very good. It is easy to treat, and once on medication, a dog can be expected to return to normal within a few weeks.

Street Talk

very good article

  about 9 years ago

Thanks Frank.

  about 9 years ago

Hi Janice This is good stuff

  about 9 years ago

Thank you greatly Geoffrey.

  about 9 years ago
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