Of all the varied diseases and conditions that can strike a dog down in its later years, Cushing's disease is one of the most feared by dog owners. This dysfunction of the dog's endocrine glands may be barely noticeable at first, but without proper treatment a dog suffering from this chronic illness can decline alarmingly quickly.
However, Cushing's disease is by no means a death sentence for your pup. Veterinarians can now offer a range of treatments to help your dog stay in good health for many years after a Cushing's disease diagnosis, and veterinary surgeons can even attempt to cure the disease in more pronounced cases. This article will explain the pathology and symptoms of Cushing's disease and how you and your vet can help your dog maintain their quality of life.
What is Cushing's disease, and how does it affect dogs?
Cushing's disease occurs when your dog's body starts to manufacture excessive amounts of a hormone called cortisol, generated by the adrenal gland. The cause of excessive cortisol production varies depending on individual cases; some dogs develop Cushing's disease due to a tumour or cancerous growth in the adrenal or pituitary glands, while others develop the disease after taking excessive amounts of steroids to treat other conditions.
However a dog develops Cushing's syndrome, the end result is the same; excessive cortisol levels start to damage the dog's body and cause it to malfunction, particularly within certain vital organs. In terms of visible symptoms, a dog showing the first signs of Cushing's disease will usually exhibit at least some of the following:
- Dramatically increased thirst and/or hunger
- Frequent urination and/or incontinence
- Thinning and wrinkling of the skin
- Fur loss
- Excessive panting
- Minor skin infections, such as eczema
- Fatigue and insomnia
How can Cushing's disease be diagnosed and treated?
Cushing's disease exhibits many symptoms associated with more common canine conditions, so correct diagnosis can be difficult -- letting your vet know of any changes in your dog's appearance, behaviour or health in general can help them narrow down potential causes. If your vet thinks that Cushing's disease is a possible cause of your dog's symptoms, they will conduct a full examination of your dog's body, including blood and urine analysis. This can be a stressful time for an already sick dog, so be sure to be patient.
If Cushing's disease is diagnosed, treatment and palliative care can begin immediately and will rapidly halt progression of the disease if administered properly. The most common treatments given to Cushing's disease dogs include the following:
- Surgery - If your dog's illness is caused by a tumour in the adrenal glands (the most common cause), your vet or another veterinary surgeon can attempt to excise the tumour. If successful, your dog will be completely cured of the condition, and the surgery is relatively safe and minimally invasive. However, surgery is still a risky proposition for your dog, so make sure to discuss your dog's options thoroughly with your vet.
- Medication - If your dog's Cushing's syndrome is caused by a tumour in the pituitary gland, or tumours in the adrenal glands that have begun to spread to other organs, surgery may be impossible. The alternative treatment is medication, and when started relatively early and kept up properly, your dog shouldn't experience much of a drop in quality of life. A dog taking medication for Cushing's disease will have to take it for the rest of their lives, so be prepared for a long commitment to your dog's health.
- Steroid withdrawal - If a dog's Cushing's disease is caused by excessive steroid injections, your vet may try to reduce and minimise steroid doses. This can halt the development of the disease but can result in a relapse of the condition the steroids were being used to treat.
Talk with your veterinarian as soon as you notice signs of Cushing's disease in your dog.